As educators, we spend a lot of time assessing our students for their ability to understand what we have taught them. When thinking about students’ reading skills, one of our main concerns is the development of their vocabulary skills. In fact, investigating the link between students’ ability to understand what is being read and their grasp of the vocabulary used is one of the most often reported connections in educational research. This is the crux of why vocabulary development is crucial: vocabulary knowledge is one of the most significant predictors of reading comprehension.
How do we “know” what a word means?
Vocabulary tests hanging over your child’s head?
Just like a student may use different methods to learn something, i.e. reading about it, performing a task that leads to experiencing it, watching a video about it, etc., students can go through phases of being able to talk and write about words they learn. Students often come to school with as many as 10,000 words already in their vocabulary – words that they know and can use in a meaningful way. They will then go on to pick up somewhere around 3600 or more words per year of schooling. But, how do students “know” what a word is? Do they acquire mastery right away? The answer is, on average, “no.” In fact, we might think of students having four different vocabularies: listening, speaking, reading, and writing vocabularies. In other words, they learn vocabulary words by degrees. Listening vocabularies are a broad set of words that students can understand on a basic level when watching TV or engaged in some other listening experience. They are acquainted with the words and may know the meaning in a specific context. however, they do not “own” the knowledge completely. They can understand the word as it is used in the flow of a story or explanation or some other oral construct. If a student is asked to recall what the word means at a later time s/he will probably not be able to define it completely. The student may become familiar enough with the word to be able to add it to a speaking vocabulary. That is, the student can now hear, understand and use the word in spoken language. However, it is still in an oral context. The next step would be to guide the student as s/he works to increase understanding of the word by being able to add it to a reading vocabulary. Once the student can use the word in a printed context, the word can be used by the student in the smallest set of “owned words”: a written vocabulary.
It might help to understand that vocabulary words are understood in two ways:
- words that are received by the student in spoken or written format, and
- words that are used by the student in speech or written down
Vocabulary building is one of the key parts to becoming a fluent reader. Fluency plays a key role in students continuing to read, continuing to acquire new knowledge and experiences, and continue to be successful in learning. What this means is:
- A student who owns the understanding of a word can eventually read it
- When a sufficient amount of words are mastered, the student is able to read smoothly at an appropriate speed for the level with the expression you would expect to hear.
- When a student reads with fluency, they enjoy it more and are likely to read more and become more independent
- Over time, independent reading plays a much larger part in the student;s ability to gain knowledge
- The better the ability to gain knowledge, the more successful the student is likely to become.
In short: when a student knows more vocabulary, s/he reads more independently and learns more.
What Can Parents Do to Help Students with Vocabulary?
Research has shown that most vocabulary is learned while engaged in everyday activities using spoken and written language. However, there are a large set of words that must be taught in order for the student to comprehend more complex written and spoken language. As a parent, your main goal is to simply engage your child in activities shown to help them read and comprehend what they have read. Once a child begins school, vocabulary skills will focus on the words s/he must understand to communicate effectively. Specifically, help your child learn vocabulary by:
- Talking to your child in a meaningful way every day. Your conversation should include new words that s/he would find interesting. They don’t have to be big or complex, just meaningful to their lives.
- Reading to and with your child every day. Chose books that have a few new words. When a new word is encountered, make sure your child knows what the word means. After you have finished reading the book, talk to your child about the book and recall the words – not as a quiz – but more casually. Just to keep the words fresh in their minds.
- Grouping objects or pictures in a meaningful way while naming the objects.Your child’s world contains lots of great “stuff”! Engage your child in discovery of the environment. Help your child work towards “owning” the understanding of the word.
- Sharing stories about your family, work, the community, or even from a magazine or newspaper. Play games with the words. Tell jokes. Anything to introduce new words into their lives.
- Dropping everything to read! Your child needs to read independently. They also need to see that you value independent reading. At some point during the day, slow your world to a crawl and focus on reading. You can read by yourself and your child can do the same.
You’ve probably heard about Scholastic books. They also produce great web sites that offer hints and tips for helping you help your child. I highly recommend one page in particular: “For the Love of Words – Help your child build a rich vocabulary, and in turn, strong reading and writing skills” by Susan Canizares.
Books for Working on Science Vocabulary
I’ve put together a group of five books that are not only fun to read but reinforce topics that we will be covering in Science class during the course of our time together. These books can be found at just about any library or can be specially ordered by your library. Of course, you can also find books like these and just explore!
There are six titles. To view the cover art for a book, click on the image.
Vocabulary Techniques You Can Use
The most important things you can do are engage your child in reading and talk to them in a meaningful way while you are reading and afterward. When you come across a word that is interesting and new, write it down. One common technique is to use a Word Wall. Basically, a word wall gives you the ability to easily display and group words that you want to work on with your child. It could be a row of envelop pockets on a piece of cardboard or words on cards stuck to the refrigerator with magnets, or Post-it notes situated on cabinets in the kitchen. Word Walls keep the word visible and help the child connect with the concept and the written word every day.
Scholastic has a page about creating effective word walls. Another great site with tons of information about words walls is on Reading Rockets.
Each of the books listed above contain engaging stories about animals or plants or the world around us. I Love Our Earth is a much simpler book but every page is a jumping off spot for a conversation. Where is the boat sailing? What kind of animal is that boy riding and…is he really in the river? Can you imagine camping in that tent in the middle of green hills? What about the desert? Could you live there? How would you get water? Everyone has a job to do and vultures are no exception.
Vulture View uses words that flow with the story but also cleverly indicate some of the interesting science facts about vultures. Ask your child why vultures have such large wings and why do they look for warm air? What happens when the air cools? How do vultures find their food with smell? Have fun with words like reek, stinky, fragrant, rotten, clean, and preen. The last two pages have lots of facts you can read and share with your child.
You r child has a lot in common with some elephants. Your child can go to art class and learn to paint. Elephants Can Paint Too! is a wonderful introduction to a group of special people and talented elephants who work together to make the world a better place for elephants all over the world. The author uses word pairs to help readers use context to understand words like “city” and “jungle”, “hands” and “trunks”. While your child is engrossed in the world of the artist elephant, you will be exploring words like “vegetarian”, “hauled”, “Asia”, “elders”, and many others. There are passages that the child can read quite easily and others that you will be able to work on together.
Everything living on the earth follows a common pattern called a life cycle. Life As A Sunflower takes your child from seed to blossom and back again. It’s an interactive book that asks your child questions about what s/he is reading. You’re going to want to talk about how birds, bees and butterflies are important to sunflowers and other plants. What is nectar and pollen? What’s a root, a shoot, and a bud? While you’re at it, point out the index on the back page. That’s a very important word to understand.
One of my favorites of this group is about the many different kinds of frogs on this wet and dry planet. Frog Song uses beautiful artwork, fun words that describe the sounds frogs make and great descriptions of the daily lives of frogs. One of the best things about this book is a list of web sites you and your child can visit for more information about the frogs. Your child will have many questions. Where is Cost Rica, Equador, Chile, Borneo, and Spain? Why is that tiny red frog with blue legs called a “strawberry poison dart”? What’s the difference between a frog and a toad? Then there’s the words that make kids curious: squirming, tadpole, slurp, froglet, drizzle, swizzle, and cocoon. And, do the tadpoles really come out of that frog’s back? What??!
Here is a list of all the web links used on this page: