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How to Build Your Child’s Vocabulary

Vocabulary plays an important part in learning to read. For example, when a beginning reader sees the word dog in a book, he begins to sound it out. When he realizes that he is very familiar with the word dog, he reads it with confidence.

How to Build Your Child's Vocabulary - From All About Reading

But what if the child comes across the word yak in a story? If he has never heard of a yak, he may try to sound out the word, but may then begin to second guess himself. Is this a real word? Have I decoded it properly?

A similar thing can happen with older students, too. If a student comes across the word bovine but it’s not in his vocabulary, he may become frustrated.

A large vocabulary is critical for reading comprehension. This article will show you how to include vocabulary development in your child’s educational plans, as well as some pitfalls to avoid.

Four Types of Vocabulary

When we talk about vocabulary, we are actually talking about four related vocabularies. In order from largest to smallest they are:

  1. Listening vocabulary (words we can hear and understand)
  2. Reading vocabulary (words we can understand when we read)
  3. Speaking vocabulary (words we use when we talk)
  4. Writing vocabulary (words we use when we write)

For younger students who are still learning to read, speaking vocabulary is generally larger than their reading vocabulary. But for older readers who are past the “learning to read” stage and who have entered the “reading to learn” stage, this is the typical order.

How to Build Your Child's Vocabulary - From All About Reading

There is a high correlation between the four vocabularies. Growth in one area generally leads to growth in another. But is it possible for you to influence this growth? The simple answer is YES!

So let’s look at how to increase your child’s vocabulary.

Two Main Approaches to Vocabulary Development

How to Build Your Child's Vocabulary - From All About Reading

Most vocabulary is attained through indirect methods:

Direct vocabulary instruction includes things such as:

Both indirect and direct methods of building vocabulary are important, but let’s look at what doesn’t work when trying to build your child’s vocabulary.

Five Common Mistakes in Teaching Vocabulary Words

Does this routine sound familiar?

It’s Monday–time to learn a new list of twenty vocabulary words. The children look up the words in the dictionary and copy the definitions. On Tuesday they will use the words in a sentence, and on Wednesday they will complete a fill-in-the-blank worksheet or even a fun vocabulary crossword puzzle. On Friday there will be a quiz on the twenty words. Then, whether they remember last week’s words or not, on Monday it will be time to start all over again.

Although many of us were taught vocabulary words this way, even the most compliant kids groaned inwardly at this demotivating routine.

Here’s the problem: the list-on-Monday, test-on-Friday approach to teaching vocabulary simply isn’t effective. It does, however, illustrate these common mistakes:

  1. Assigning too many new vocabulary words at one time.
  2. Teaching vocabulary words out of context.
  3. Expecting students to recall vocabulary words after a single exposure to the word.
  4. Making vocabulary development a boring topic that kids want to avoid.

And then there is a fifth common mistake:

  1. Skipping vocabulary development entirely.

And this is really where the rubber meets the road. Vocabulary that is developed naturally rather than taught using the more traditional method above is much more likely to stick with your child.

How Does All About Reading Build Vocabulary?

Each story lesson in the All About Reading program includes direct and indirect vocabulary lessons that offer a variety of ways for your child to learn new words. The sampling below shows the range of vocabulary-building activities that can be found in AAR lessons.

Vocabulary words are illustrated and then used in the next story.

AAR Level 1 Story and Activity

Though this is perhaps the simplest type of vocabulary lesson, it is effective because it allows children to form pictures of concrete nouns in their minds. In this AAR Level 1 example, students are introduced to the words pug and bun before encountering the words in the story “Get Them!”

Download the Warm-Up Sheet from Level 1
Download Level 1 Story: “Get Them!”

The names of countries and world regions are introduced.

AAR Level 2 Story and Activity

This AAR Level 2 lesson introduces children to the mountain region of the Swiss Alps with an easy-to-make minibook and an engaging story.

Download a minibook activity from Level 2
Download Level 2 Story: “An Elf in the Swiss Alps”

Idioms such as “hold your horses” are explained.

AAR Level 3 Story and Activity

AAR Level 3 introduces twelve idioms in an activity called “When Pigs Fly.” Many of these idioms are encountered in “Chasing Henry” and subsequent stories.

Download an idiom activity from Level 3
Download Level 3 Story: “Chasing Henry”

Dialects used in other regions or by specific groups of people can present interesting challenges.

AAR Level 4 Story and Activity

The AAR Level 4 activity “What Does the Cowboy Say?” introduces children to vocabulary and regional idioms such as reckon and fixin’ to, which in turn allows them to fully enjoy the story “Cowboy Star.”

Download a dialect activity from Level 4
Download Level 4 Story: “Cowboy Star”

Greek word parts provide clues to the meaning of many words.

AAR Level 4 Story and Activity

And finally, AAR Level 4 includes an activity called “Borrow a Telescope” that introduces children to eleven common Greek word parts and related vocabulary words. Some of these words are featured in “Charlie’s Sick Day” and subsequent short stories.

Download a word building activity from Level 4
Download Level 4 Story: “Charlie’s Sick Day”

Other vocabulary activities feature homophones, concept maps, morphemic strategies, and words that have origins in other languages such as French, Spanish, and Italian.

Research shows that children also learn a huge number of words from engaging in conversation with the adults around them. So as a parent, how can you leverage this knowledge for your child’s benefit?

The Conversational Method for Teaching Vocabulary

The conversational method is a powerful way to help build your child’s vocabulary. It is an indirect method that is so simple that you can start using it right after you read this article.

In a nutshell, the conversational method is simply talking with your child and expanding upon vocabulary words that your child has not yet learned.

Step 1: When a new word comes up in conversation or in a book, provide a simple, age-appropriate definition for the new word.

How to Build Your Child's Vocabulary - From All About Reading

Step 2: Provide one or two examples that make sense to your child.

How to Build Your Child's Vocabulary - From All About Reading

Step 3: Encourage your child to think of his own example, or of the opposite of the new word.

How to Build Your Child's Vocabulary - From All About Reading

Step 4: Use the new word in conversation over the next few days.

How to Build Your Child's Vocabulary - From All About Reading

the-conversational-method-thumbnail

You can download this simple chart and hang it on your fridge to remind yourself of the four steps. Soon this method will become second nature to you, and your child’s vocabulary will grow by leaps and bounds.

Research Studies about Vocabulary Instruction

All About Reading is a research-based program, and I spend considerable time keeping up on the latest language arts-related studies. My job is to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to help children learn to read. There is a large body of research that backs up our claim that vocabulary growth is critical for reading, especially as students approach high school.

Click to read a sampling of research studies.
  • The size of one’s vocabulary is strongly correlated to how well text is understood, even at the high school level.
    Stanovich, K. & Cunningham, A. (1992). Studying the consequences of literacy within a literate society: The cognitive correlates of print exposures. Memory & Cognition, 20(1), 51-68; Beck & McKeown (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. Elementary School Journal, 107(3), 251-271.

  • Growth in oral vocabulary development can predict reading comprehension.
    Elleman, A., Lindo, E. Morphy, P. & Compton, D. (2009). The impact of vocabulary instruction on passage-level comprehension of school-age children: a meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Effectiveness, 2(1), 1-44.

  • Adults’ conversations with children facilitate vocabulary growth.
    Mol, S. Bus, A., & deJong, M (2009). Interactive book reading in early education: a tool to stimulate print knowledge as well as oral language. Review of Educational Research, 79(2), 979-1007. Mol, S. & Neuman, S.B. (2012). Sharing information books with kindergarteners: the role of parents’ extratextual talk and socioeconomic status. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

  • Discussion about morphology (such as root words and affixes) improves vocabulary.
    Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J.R., & Deacon, S. H. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: a systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 144-179.

The Bottom Line for Building Vocabulary

When it comes to building your child’s vocabulary, here’s what you need to keep in mind:

  • Avoid the common mistakes in teaching vocabulary, as outlined in this article.
  • Teach specific new vocabulary words using direct instruction.
  • Discuss word parts so your child can learn word construction.
  • Read lots of books aloud to your child and have informal conversations about new words that arise.
  • And finally, have fun playing with words!

The All About Reading program walks you and your child through all the steps needed to help your child’s vocabulary grow. The program is multisensory, motivating, and complete, with everything you need to raise a strong reader. And if you need a helping hand, we’re here for you.

All About Reading Product Line

What’s your take on encouraging a larger vocabulary? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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Vanessa Hoque

says:

I cant wait to try this techniques and read materials to my child

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Sounds great, Vanessa!

Angelia Bauer

says:

Thank you for the vocabulary tips!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Angelia!

Janet Hanmer

says:

I love the way d and b are taught!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Janet!

Sue Slezycki

says:

This sounds like a great program.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Sue!

Jay

says:

Excellent article on building vocabulary. I always wondered about whether specific curriculum was necessary as we were using Wordly Wise just for fun for both our 4 and 6 year olds. AAR has been wonderful for us (and we read, read, read every day-together and now my 6 year old, who’s halfway through Level 3, reads to her brother!) and they both have a great vocabulary, I’m positive, in part to AAR! We love y’all!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Wow, your 6-year-old is doing so well, Jay! Wonderful work! And that read, read, read every day plays a huge part in vocabulary development!

BRIGID O'HAGAN

says:

thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Brigid!

Jane

says:

I’m so glad I came across this blog post! I love the examples and books provided and other resources! I will be a first time homeschool mom and I am soaking up all the info/encouragement/resources I can get my hands on! It’s been a great search.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so glad this is helpful for you, Jane! But if you have any questions or need anything, just know we are always happy to help!

Kelly

says:

Great ideas. My daughter is an excellent reader, but struggles in vocabulary so this is very helpful.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so glad this is helpful, Kelly!

Jacqueline

says:

This is such a great way to explain effective vocabulary instruction. Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Jacqueline. Thank you!

Sonya Haidet

says:

Mine are excited about the dictionary now!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great to hear, Sonya! More traditional approaches to vocabulary can make children hate dictionaries. I love that this approach often leads to children enjoying dictionaries.

C

says:

Good ideas

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you.

Sydney

says:

A lot of good ideas in here that I’m excited to utilize- glad I clicked on one of the links that suggested the Apples to Apples Jr. game as a fun way to do this. We love family games and I think my kids will really enjoy this one (and learn more words along the way😉).

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad you are excited about the ideas in this blog post, and about playing games for building language skills. Thank you, Sydney!

Susan

says:

This blog is very informative. Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Susan! I’m glad it’s helpful!

Heather

says:

What a great way to add to our childrens’ vocabulary!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Heather!

Amanda Mobley

says:

Daily conversations and read alouds! Can’t believe our son is close to being five, I’m excited to teach him to read.

Gretchen N

says:

I have always found those weekly lists for vocabulary and spelling to be so tedious and my kids never enjoyed them. AAR has been a breathe of fresh air!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great to hear it, Gretchen!

Jennifer O

says:

I love AAR and AAS! I’ve used it on our last child for homeschool. Sure wish it had been around for the older two…

Michelle salazar

says:

Love this!

Erica Stoltzfus

says:

Love this post. So many good ideas for building a larger vocabulary in smaller children. I personally like reading aloud to them to grow a larger vocabulary from the time they are babies. We don’t just read picture books, we also do many non fiction books about topics they are interested in. That way they are getting introduced to so many topics and growing their vocabulary.

Stephanie Lowe

says:

I have noticed a huge difference in my kids vocabulary after the first 10 lessons!

Mallory Schell

says:

I love this approach to teaching vocabulary. My daughter learns so much this way.

Eva

says:

We love how AAR introduces new vocabulary.. and great article…

rachel

says:

Thank you! This is very helpful especially for preschool homeschooler moms like me

Jenny

says:

Wonderful advice! We love the AAR program!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Jenny!

Angelina

says:

Thank you! I can’t wait to start using AAR and all of the resources you recommend!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Wonderful, Angelina! Do you have any questions about placement or anything else? I’m happy to help!

Rachel Schichtl

says:

All great advice, thanks!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Rachel!

Glenda W.

says:

I think a large vocabulary gives a child/person an advantage in life, in general. I love the breakdown explanations & rationale provided to parents/teachers in AAR. It helps me to be more intentional when interacting with/teaching my grandchildren. Prior to AAR, I habitually gave the definition of a new vocabulary word, and had a child use the word right then, perhaps repeating a sentence that I suggested. However, I didn’t think to encourage a child to internalize the new word by requesting them to think of an opposite. That is pure genius!
I love, love, love AAR for helping me to grow my grandchildren’s vocabularies and love of learning in fun, interactive, and interesting ways.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so glad this was helpful for you to assist your grandchildren to take their vocabulary learning to the next level, Glenda!

Vanessa K.

says:

All About Reading and All About Spelling have really changed learning to read and spell for my daughter. We started schooling last year with her barely able to spell or read, and now she has excelled so far. I really appreciate this curriculum.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Wonderful, Vanessa! I’m happy to hear that your daughter is doing so well with All About Reading and All About Spelling!

Sara Crowell

says:

Vocabulary instruction is vital! Thank you for sharing all these fabulous resources.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Sara! Glad you like them.

Adrienne

says:

Thanks for the great tips. We love building vocabulary through read alouds! We are loving All About Reading in our homeschool this year and will add All About Spelling next school year!