Helping Children Expand Their Vocabulary

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By Dr. Raymond J. Huntington

One of the essential components of strong reading ability is a good vocabulary. A student should grow his or her vocabulary over time, but doing so requires regular reading and frequent study of new words. Students with limited vocabularies will struggle as teachers increasingly expect more independent reading — and school reading becomes more difficult.

Here are a few ways parents can help their child improve his or her vocabulary:

Read, read, read. The most obvious way parents can help their child expand his or her vocabulary is to read aloud together and encourage him or her to read independently. Ask your child’s teacher for book recommendations appropriate for your child’s reading level, but also let your child choose his or her own reading material. Fervent readers develop their vocabulary naturally, so if your child enjoys reading and does it regularly, he or she will learn new words.

Reintroduce words in multiple settings. Your child’s vocabulary list for the week includes the word “trait”. After reading the definition and quizzing him or her on it several times, find ways to use the word in conversation throughout the week. Be sure your examples give sufficient context so that your child can decode the meaning if he or she doesn’t remember the definition. For example, “You have some interesting traits,” is not as good as, “You are very hard-working — it’s one of your best personality traits.”

Pre-teach words before reading a story. If a book has a glossary of key words at the end, before reading to your child, read the glossary. Studies show that pre-teaching target words that appear within a text has a positive effect on a reader’s retention and vocabulary acquisition.

When reading together, have your child define words. When your child encounters unfamiliar words, first have him or her try to infer the meaning based on how the word is used. When your child is actively engaged in vocabulary study, he or she is much more likely to remember definitions than if you read them to him or her. If your child cannot derive a word’s meaning from context, define it and provide an example of it in use. Then, ask your child to come up with a second example.

Point out words’ origins. Your child will learn about roots, prefixes and suffixes in language class at school, but help reinforce those teachings by pointing them out as you come across them in books. “Preview”, for example, is made up of the root word, “view” and a prefix, “pre”, which means “before.” “Pollute” is a root word, but “pollution” has the suffix “ion” on the end, which turns the verb (pollute) into a noun (pollution). Understanding word structure and how prefixes and suffixes change root words’ meanings will help your child define many new words.

Make the dictionary your child’s new companion. Teach your child to use a dictionary and keep one nearby when reading. As he or she reads, encourage your child to jot down unfamiliar words to look up later — or look them up immediately. Your child might also benefit from a combination dictionary/thesaurus, which includes synonym lists with dictionary entries to give students plenty of examples of words with the same meanings.

As your child adds to his or her vocabulary, so will he or she increase his or her reading speed and fluency. Continue to encourage your child to look up new words, use them in written and spoken context, and explore any budding interest in language. Doing so will help your child become a more eager and confident reader, and a happier, more successful student.

Dr. Raymond J. Huntington and Eileen Huntington are co-founders of Huntington Learning Center, which has been helping children succeed in school for more than 30 years. For more information about Huntington, call 1-800 CAN LEARN.

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