How Can I Improve My Child’s Vocabulary?

Learn how to grow your child’s vocabulary using some simple tactics…

Developing a wide vocabulary is really important for good reading comprehension and it’s also vital for understanding the concepts in a wide range of academic subjects.1

In fact, there’s even a strong relationship between a person’s vocabulary and their intelligence and level of income.2

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to improve the vocabulary of kids although it does take some time and a continued effort.  If you want to increase your child’s vocabulary, you should find the information in this article helpful.

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Contents:

Summary

  • In pre-school years, it’s important to engage children in regular conversations that are free from distractions.
  • Once children learn to read they pick up most of their new vocabulary from books. Storybooks seem to improve children’s reading comprehension and vocabulary more than newspapers, magazines, comics and nonfiction books.
  • Children pick up more new words from books that are appropriate for their age and reading level than they do from difficult texts that contain too many unfamiliar words.
  • Teaching children some words directly can also be beneficial, especially if this is done just before they meet the words in a book.
  • It can be useful to look up words in a children’s dictionary because they explain new vocabulary in language that young children are more likely to understand.
  • Children develop a better understanding if they hear more than one example phrase or sentence containing a new word.
  • It can help to use antonyms to explain a word as well as synonyms.
  • Teaching children about the structure of words and the meanings of common word roots, prefixes and suffixes can also help them understand new words.
  • Children need to meet words several times in different contexts before they are likely to remember and use a word correctly in their own writing. So it’s important to review new words after a day or two and several times again over a few weeks.
  • Children are more likely to remember a new word if it is reviewed using a variety of strategies.  

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The Importance of Talking and Reading to Your Child

In pre-school years, a child’s vocabulary is largely dependent on the number of words they hear from their parents. 

So a very simple but important thing to do is to give your child regular conversation time that’s free from distraction.  We discuss this in more detail in our article ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’.

However, as children get older their vocabulary development increasingly depends on how widely they read and the amount and type of instruction they get. 2

“Research has shown that children who read even ten minutes a day outside of school experience substantially higher rates of vocabulary growth between second and fifth grade than children who do little or no reading.” 3

Narrative texts (story books) seem to improve children’s reading comprehension and vocabulary more than newspapers, magazines, comics and nonfiction books.4 

However, reading some nonfiction books is important for developing subject-specific knowledge and vocabulary.

It’s also important to provide books for your child that are at an appropriate level for them. 

One might expect that children would learn more from really difficult books.  However, studies have shown that if children read a piece of text containing one new word for every 150 words they have a 30-percent chance of learning the new words. 

Whereas, if the texts contain one new word for every 10 words, children only have a 7-percent chance of remembering the new words.2

Reading books with overly-ambitious vocabulary can also be de-motivating for children. 

I recall struggling through the first chapter of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ with one of our daughters when she was still quite young.  She had enjoyed a TV adaptation of the story, but we quickly realised that the book wasn’t appropriate for her reading age at that time.  There seemed to be a word she wasn’t familiar with in every other sentence and we just couldn’t get into the flow of the story.

It’s really important that children get enjoyment out of reading if we want them to continue doing it independently as they get older.  So let them read books that are pitched for their age level or just slightly above. 

As a matter of fact, children’s books contain more new vocabulary than you might expect.  Prominent reading researcher, Professor Keith Stanovich, has noted:

“… Children’s books contain 50% more “rare” words (outside the vocabulary of 9-12 yr. olds) than do adult prime time television, or the conversation of college graduates. Popular magazines have roughly three times as many opportunities for new word learning as prime-time television and adult conversation”.5

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Key Points for Vocabulary Instruction

Children can learn a lot of new vocabulary independently by reading and inferring the meaning from the context of the text.

However, they also benefit from being told the meaning of some words before they meet them in a topic or book they are studying. 1, 2 

If it isn’t possible to teach words prior to reading a piece of text (perhaps because of time restrictions), it’s still worth discussing new words as you meet them when you are reading together.

Teaching your child knowledge about the structure of words and the meanings of common word roots, prefixes and suffixes can also help them understand new words more easily.  For more guidance on this, see our article ‘Spelling Strategies for Kids’.    

Repetition is also important.  Children need to meet words several times in different contexts before they are likely to remember and use a word correctly in their own writing. 

Some studies suggest that it can take up to 6 exposures to a word in context before a child will remember it and have a good grasp of its meaning. 2

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Explaining New Words to Your Child

Making the meaning of a new word clear to a child can be tricky because we have to use other words to explain it and the child might not always be familiar with the words we want to use. 

It can be difficult to think up a child-friendly explanation on the spot, so it can be useful to have a children’s dictionary handy when you read with your child.  These tend to define words using language that children are more likely to know.

There are also some good online sources you can use.  For example:

The Kids.Wordsmyth dictionary is a useful resource for finding simple definitions and related words.

Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s dictionary is designed for students with another fist language who are learning English.  However, the definitions are also useful for children because they are generally shorter and use simpler language.

Provide Example Sentences…

Children develop a better understanding if they hear more than one example phrase or sentence containing a new word.  So, if possible, try to think of several example sentences where the new word could be used.  For example: 

“His Mum tried to persuade him to eat his vegetables by offering him a dessert if he finished them.” 

“The teacher persuaded the boy to finish his work by telling him it would help him to do well in the test next lesson.” 

“The zoo-keeper persuaded the gorilla to go back into its enclosure by putting a big bunch of bananas in there.”

If you can’t think of many examples use the links above or use a good children’s dictionary. 

It can help to use antonyms to explain a word as well as synonyms.  So, for example, you could say that ‘huge’ is the opposite of ‘tiny’ and an ant is tiny and an elephant is huge.

Thesaurus.com is great for synonyms and antonyms.  It claims to be the world’s largest free online thesaurus.

As we said earlier, repetition is important.  Children need to meet words several times in different contexts.  However, it’s much more effective to space the repetition over a number of sessions rather than trying to do it all in one go. 

So, after you’ve explained a new word to your child and given example sentences and an antonym, make a note of the word and review it again in a few days. 

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Additional Strategies for Learning Vocabulary

You could experiment with using one or two of the strategies listed below. 

Some of these strategies take more time and effort than others and they might not all be appropriate for every type of word, so use your own judgement about which strategy to use for a particular word. 

See if your child can make up a sentence of their own with the new word in it

If they can’t do this then give them some prompts.

For example, “Can you make up a sentence about meeting a monster that was huge?”  Encourage them to be creative so they don’ just say “I met a huge monster”.  Get them to describe how big it was, “ … it was taller than our house” and also how they might feel if they were to really meet such a creature.

Get them to think of other things they might be familiar with where the word might be appropriate.

For example, “Can you think of a creature in the sea that’s huge?” “What type of plant could grow to be huge?”  “Which character was huge in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk?”  “Do you know the names of any huge dinosaurs?”

Try to make up some example sentences where your child will have to think about the meaning of the word:

“The creature crawled under the gap at the bottom of the door – do you think the creature was huge?”  “Tom’s pet cat was huge; what do you suppose happened when it tried to get into the house through the cat flap?”

Show your child a visual image associated with the word and then encourage them to describe or sketch their own visual image.

This takes a bit of effort, and it isn’t easy or practical to do this for every new word, but it has been shown to be one of the best ways to learn the meanings of new words.2  

In fact, combining verbal and visual information can be an effective way of learning all sorts of information, the technical term for it is dual coding.

If you aren’t much of an artist, then try a quick search on Google images using a phrase that contains the word.  For example, for the word ‘censorship’ I typed in book censorship and got lots of results that could be used to start a discussion with a child.  I also typed in transparent, opaque and sturdy and got some interesting results for all of them.

Help your child to construct a ‘semantic gradient’ that includes one of the words he or she has recently learned.

To do this, choose a pair of words that are complete opposites and think of (or look up) as many synonyms for each of these words as you can.  One of the synonyms should be a word you have visited recently. 

Discuss each word with your child and try to put the words in some kind of order that bridges from one opposite word to the other.  This exercise might not be possible for all types of words but it can make children think about meanings more deeply. 

Follow this link to the informative Reading Rockets website for a more detailed explanation, or watch the video explanation of the technique below:

Create a Word Map With Your Child.

Word Maps incorporate many of the strategies mentioned in this article and research suggests they can be quite effective.

They help children to see the relationships between words, knowledge and concepts by organising the information in a visual framework.   

We’ve written an article on Word Maps which includes plenty of examples and free downloadable templates.

In general, the greater variety of approaches you use for each word the better, but we all have a limited amount of time.  Consequently, if your child already has a reasonable grasp of the meaning of a word, don’t overdo it. 

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Finally…

Keep a list of words you’ve covered and review them again after a few weeks.  Keep doing these reviews until you are confident your child has really grasped the words.

If your child is school age and can already read, you might also find the website www.vocabulary.com helpful.   It uses sophisticated computer algorithms to help children learn new words and can be played as a game. 

As your child plays Vocabulary.com, the algorithm figures out which words they know well and which ones they need more help with.  And as they improve, the programme introduces more advanced words.

You can also type in lists of words you want to focus on and it will prioritize those.  What’s more, it’s absolutely free!

You can view a video explaining how it works here: https://www.vocabulary.com/help/videos/

Vocabulary Word Lists

The lists from the link below are from the Reading Rockets website.  They were created to help US teachers know which vocabulary/spelling words should be taught to kids in grades 1–5.  The list contains 850 words that account for 80 percent of the words children use in their writing: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/basic-spelling-vocabulary-list

An alternative and more challenging set of word lists for each grade can be found on the Great Schools website.  Click here for vocabulary words for first graders or see use these links for vocabulary lists for 2nd grade3rd grade4th grade, and 5th grade.

We’ve included some vocabulary/spelling lists from the UK English National Curriculum in our article about spelling strategies.  You can download these as pdf. files for free.

Vocabulary.com has various useful lists such as 100 words every middle schooler should know and their top 1000 list of difficult but common words that are most likely to appear in US academic tests.

.See the section below for other useful links.

Further Information…

If you would like to know more about helping your child with their reading comprehension then click on this link: ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’.

We also have another article on Reading Comprehension Strategies.

Click on this link If you would like more information about teaching your child phonics.

If you would like more information about improving your child’s spelling then click on this link.

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References:

  1. Hempenstall, K. Vocabulary/Oral Language/Comprehension: Some research findings (updated July 2017), National Institute for Direct Instruction: https://www.nifdi.org/resources/hempenstall-blog/506-vocabulary-oral-language-comprehension-some-research-findings
  2. Marzano, R. et al. (2001), Classroom Instruction that Works, ASCD.
  3. Big Ideas in Beginning Reading, University of Oregon, Vocabulary Concepts and Research: http://reading.uoregon.edu/big_ideas/voc/voc_what.php
  4. Pfost, M., Dörfler, T. & Artelt, C. (2013). Students’ extracurricular reading behavior and the development of vocabulary and reading comprehension. Learning and Individual Differences, 26, 89-102.
  5. Stanovich, K.E. (1993). Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 133-180.

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