It makes sense that vocabulary is important for reading success: if a child doesn’t know or understand enough words in a book, he or she will have lots of trouble understanding the book.

The problem is that when a child reaches elementary school without a strong vocabulary, it is hard for a teacher to “fix” it. Vocabulary has to build up over time, all the time, from birth — long before children go to school. That means that growing a child’s vocabulary isn’t something that teachers and schools can take on alone.

So how can you help your children grow their vocabulary over the years? First of all, since building vocabulary is so important, it makes sense to be intentional, rather than assume it will just happen. Make a decision to do things that will encourage vocabulary growth every day, and enlist other caregivers to do the same.

Here’s a parent’s basic plan for growing a child’s vocabulary:

  1. Build excitement about words. Point out words that interest you or call out a new word you heard/learned that day – even when your child is just a baby/toddler. This will get you in the habit of talking about and explaining new words, and it will make a difference over time.
  2. Read books with words that will challenge your child. Exposure to the words and the language of books is crucial. Even when your child doesn’t know all the words you’re reading, she will begin to pick up word meanings when she hears the same words over and over again, and in different contexts, and when you talk about the topic using those same words. You might wonder if the book is too hard, but as long as your child is engaged, keep reading it!
  3. Teach your child specific words that come up when you’re reading together – but not every word. For instance, if you are reading aloud the book, Hatchet, it makes sense to talk about what a hatchet is because it is important to the story. (On the other hand, some words you read won’t be easy, but also won’t be so important to making sense of the story that you need to define them. Keep in mind that stopping to define too many words can disrupt meaning-making and be truly annoying to the person listening, too!)
  4. Talk about how words work. Talk about, for example, how compound words (teapot, firehouse, railroad) are formed, and point out suffixes and prefixes and the roles they play (teach/teacher; cycle/bicycle; do/redo). If your child doesn’t seem to catch on at first, that’s fine. She will eventually!
  5. Have lots of conversations about the books you read together and ideas that come up before, during and after new experiences. It’s all about conversations when it comes to word-learning. Once your child hears you read and use the words over and over, ideally she will begin to use the new words in conversation – that’s how you’ll really know that she has learned any given word. But to get to that point, she has to take part in real back-and-forth conversations with you and the other adults in her life (conversations about topics or stories, not just talk about the logistics of everyday existence – e.g., “Where are your shoes?” or “Did you pick up your toys?”).

 

The vocabulary effort is worth it: by the end of high school, the average student should know about 50,000 words, or more. Obviously, those weekly 20-word vocabulary lists some schools send out won’t get students to that vocabulary count. But parents can commit to spending a bit of time every (or almost every!) day building a child’s vocabulary from the earliest years of life. And really, the “word talk” could be the most fun moments of the day.