At its basic level, literacy is the ability to read and write, and having a strong vocabulary is a key component of that. Without a robust databank of words, a child can struggle to make meaning of the text he encounters when reading, which makes it harder for him to learn about new concepts.
Before entering school, a child’s vocabulary naturally grows by leaps and bounds, mainly by listening to those around him. By the time he enters school, however, most of the words that are spoken are words that he already knows. At this point, the learning of new words shifts primarily to reading, which unfortunately doesn’t provide the same rich level of context clues as our intonation and body language do.
If a child’s vocabulary is lacking, he is going to have a harder time understanding what he reads. A missing word here or there is to be expected and probably won’t stop him, but encountering too many unknown words affects comprehension and causes many children to give up in frustration. And, once students are reading to learn rather than simply reading for pleasure, the ideas become more complex which compounds the reading difficulty.
If a child reads during school time, it might seem like that would be enough, but it is vitally important that reading takes place at home as well. In fact, a study by the Texas Reading Initiative found that students who read or are read to outside of school read almost 2 million words per year. Contrast that with a student who reads less than a minute per day outside of school – he only reads an additional 8,000 – 21,000 words per year, depending on his fluency, or reading speed.
It is the rare child who will turn down being read to at bedtime – even older children enjoy the ritual. In addition, if you make a routine of having a range of interesting books available to your child, he is more likely to pick them up and read on his own. Some families even encourage reading at home by setting aside twenty minutes most nights of the week for everyone to relax together on the couch and read – parents too! But what if you have a child who is resistant to being read to or to reading on his own?
Here are some ways to help your child increase his vocabulary, whether he’s a booklover or not. Mixing in an element of fun gets every child excited and learning.
- Break out a board game. There are several wonderful games that teach words as a part of play, such as Scrabble, Scrabble Jr., Boggle, Boggle Jr., Quiddler, Bananagrams and Oddly Obvious. Play with your child so you can help him learn the definition of the words that he encounters.
- Listen to audiobooks or podcasts. Make the most of your drive time by playing a story for the whole family to listen to. Listen for words your child might not know and provide a brief definition – you don’t have to do this for every word or the story will bog down. Encourage your child to ask about any words he doesn’t know and praise him when he does.
- Play I Spy. “I spy with my little eye, something that is ____________.” Instead of filling in the blank with a color, supply a definition for the word you can see and are trying to teach. Be sure to mix in several easy words so that play doesn’t become frustrating.
- Sing. Music is catchy and a great way to teach and remember information. Sing songs with unknown words and then talk about their meaning or have fun making up songs together about the words you want your child to learn.
- Word of the Day. Introduce a word and definition at the breakfast table and challenge each family member to use it in conversation at least once during family time that day.
- Play pretend. Imaginary play is a great way to introduce new words as it can often provide rich, contextual clues that help with understanding, and it only feels like fun!
- Go digital. There are a plethora of vocabulary apps and games for kids to explore at home or on the go.
Students with a greater, richer vocabulary are more likely to do better on reading achievement tests, as well as on college entrance exams and vocational placement tests. All of these are fabulous reasons to introduce vocabulary games to your family and let the fun (and learning) begin!
Alison Bogle is a writer living in Austin with her husband and three children. A former fourth grade teacher, she now enjoys writing about children and education. You can also catch her talking about articles from Austin Family magazine each Thursday morning on FOX 7 Austin.