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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

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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.

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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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Shelby Benedict

says:

I see this in my own children. Read Alouds and Audiobooks have been a huge contributor to their vocabulary growth. Hearing words in context makes all the difference for them being cemented in their memory.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Yes, great point, Shelby. Thank you.

Kara

says:

Yes! I love all of this! Read-clouds and conversation have been our main methods of indirect instruction, but we have also spent time learning Latin and Greek stems along with their English derivatives that appear in classic literature. It is so important to learn vocabulary in context, so the student can learn how to use new words appropriately!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Wonderful, Kara!

Dawn

says:

Very informative article! Thank you

Sigrid

says:

I love that you stress the conversational part of learning vocabulary! That is the biggest part of taking a word from a book and learning how/when/why to use it. My children have always impressed others with their vocabulary for their age, most likely because we homeschool and use interesting language not only in regular speech but by reading a variety of books at all levels (regardless of their age). My youngest child is so wiggly and always has been, but when it comes to listening to read aloud time, she somehow finds a way to settle her body down and really listen. Perhaps it’s the books (usually historical fiction) or maybe it’s the way I change my voice to try to sound like a character or maybe it’s just a good learning experience that soothes her active brain. I would encourage others to read aloud daily to their children and talk about all of the neat new words that come up in the books (not necessarily breaking the rhythm of reading, but answering the never-ending questions of “what does …. mean?” at an appropriate time or even before reading).

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing this, Sigrid! We completely agree about the importance of reading aloud regularly to children, even after they have learned to read themselves.

Holly Mejia

says:

Thanks for all of the info! I love it when my children stop me when I’m doing a read-a-loud to ask what a word means. Thanks for helping us out!

Katherine

says:

What a lovely way to build vocabularies!! Natural and holistic, but still systematic.

Gina McGrew

says:

I love these practical ideas for increasing vocabulary! My daughter has enjoyed 2 levels of AAR already!

Wendy

says:

This is so Awesome!!!

Nicole Hernandez

says:

My daughter has fallen in love with reading because of AAR!

Rachel R.

says:

Such fun illustrations!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thanks, Rachel!

Kayla Nolte

says:

Thank you for this article. I had no idea that vocabulary flowed in 4 sequences of development. I also appreciated the examples found in each level of vocabulary instruction and how to implement it NATURALLY daily.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Kayla. I’m glad this article helped you learn something new about vocabulary development and gave you tips for implementing it.

Ruth Reynolds

says:

I was super impressed with how level one introduced vocabulary words when we used it last year! I hands down recommend All About Reading to friends, especially if they will be homeschooling through the first 4 levels. It can be hard to “switch streams,” as I call it, with reading curriculum (as so many include memorizing high-frequency words). But at the end of the day, it’s better to start with the best than need to remediate. Our local public school will use the Orton-Gillingham method only after kids are struggling readers down the line.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing, Ruth!

Katy

says:

Thank you for the great information and ideas!!

Michelle

says:

Great article. My kids pick up tons of new words from listening to stories.

Olivia

says:

Yes, reading aloud to kids is a fantastic way to build vocabulary… and the parent-child relationship!

Kyrstie

says:

I think parents tend to forget how important indirect vocabulary really is. We see it every single day when our children pick up words from television shows and peers so I’m not sure why we overlook how important reading aloud is for developing vocabulary. Another problem I notice with read aloud time is MY tendency to discourage interruptions from my children even when they’re asking what a word means. We get so sidetracked from the book with vocabulary lessons but it’s important for them to have, in context, definitions to make sense of what we’re reading.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Kyrstie,
Yes, indirect vocabulary learning can be powerful.

When my children have a question while I read aloud, I hold up a finger to let them know to wait just a moment. That way I can finish the sentence or paragraph, and then will answer their question. It seems to be a good compromise between not wanting to interrupt the flow of the story but also wanting to encourage them to ask questions and have discussions. Maybe something like that would work for you.

Marjorie Goertzen

says:

Yes, it’s so much fun to see their minds expand!

Marjorie Goertzen

says:

My grandson and I enjoy your systematic and anything-but-dry approach in All About Reading. Talking about Greek and Latin roots of words and their prefixes and suffixes has been an interesting study that helps to make sense of difficult words. Now he and his brother sometimes take the initiative to ask about the origin of various words.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I found the same thing with my children, Marjorie! My ongoing discussions with word meanings over the years have lead to an active interest in word meanings and origins in my children. It’s wonderful to see!

Israel Fishel

says:

We did the pre-reading AAR last year and my son LOVED it (and so did I)!! I’m excited for Level 1 this year and he has already been asking when we’re starting school again! I love that AAR inspires such a love of reading and I’m truly thankful for it!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great to hear that your son and you enjoyed the Pre-reading level so much, Israel!

Alyssa

says:

I am definitely going to approach vocabulary in a different way then I have been up until now!

Shay Lewis

says:

Sounds like this may help my son who is struggling with learning to read.

Deanne

says:

This is just what I’ve been looking for. Thanks so much!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Deanne!

Danielle Queen

says:

What great tips

valentina guerrini

says:

Thank you this will help my daughter a lot!

Helen Betzler

says:

I love that you are sharing about direct and indirect ways for learning vocabulary. You are always spot on with the science of reading.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Helen!

Sue Sandelier

says:

Love the ideas and of course the free resources…thank you:)

Laurie

says:

We used the AAR re-reading program with our little ones and they enjoyed it. Hopefully, Level 1 will help to build more confidence.

Cassi Happe

says:

My family is loving AAR and I’ve definitely noticed how our read alouds have been increasing my son’s vocabulary.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing this, Cassi. Reading aloud to children is a wonderful learning activity!

Yvonne-Ann

says:

Some excellent ideas!

Sara

says:

My son struggled with his speech and learning to read. All About Reading not only helped with his reading, but also his speech, pronunciation, and confidence. I’m so glad we found All About Reading!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Wonderful, Sara! Thank you for sharing how All About Reading has helped your son.