Parent homework: Working on vocabulary with your child

28 Dec

Educators have long recognized the importance of vocabulary in reading and learning. Francie Alexander writes in the Scholastic article, Understanding Vocabulary:

Why is vocabulary s-o-o important?
Vocabulary is critical to reading success for three reasons:
1. Comprehension improves when you know what the words mean. Since comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading, you cannot overestimate the importance of vocabulary development.
2. Words are the currency of communication. A robust vocabulary improves all areas of communication — listening, speaking, reading and writing.
3. How many times have you asked your students or your own children to “use your words”? When children and adolescents improve their vocabulary, their academic and social confidence and competence improve, too.

A University of Chicago study, “Quality of early parent input predicts child vocabulary three years later,” published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the importance of parental involvement at an early stage of learning. See more at:

Sarah D. Sparks reported in the Education Week article, Students Must Learn More Words, Say Studies:
Children who enter kindergarten with a small vocabulary don’t get taught enough words—particularly, sophisticated academic words—to close the gap, according to the latest in a series of studies by Michigan early-learning experts.

The findings suggest many districts could be at a disadvantage in meeting the increased requirements for vocabulary learning from the Common Core State Standards, said study co-author Susan B. Neuman, a professor in educational studies specializing in early-literacy development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“Vocabulary is the tip of the iceberg: Words reflect concepts and content that students need to know,” Ms. Neuman said. “This whole common core will fall on its face if kids are not getting the kind of instruction it will require.”
In an ongoing series of studies of early-grades vocabulary instruction, Ms. Neuman and co-author Tanya S. Wright, an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, analyzed how kindergarten educators choose and teach new words, both in the instruction that teachers give and in basal-reading books.
Ms. Neuman and Ms. Wright found limited vocabulary instruction across the board, but students in poverty—the ones prior research shows enter school knowing 10,000 fewer words than their peers from higher-income families—were the least likely to get instruction in academically challenging words….

There are methods that parents can use to improve their child’s vocabulary.

Lauren Lawry of the Hanen Centre wrote in the article, Build Your Child’s Vocabulary:

A recent study about vocabulary
However, it’s not just about how much you say, but also about what words you use that makes a difference to a child’s vocabulary. In a 2012 study, Meredith Rowe looked at the factors that contribute most to a child’s later vocabulary development. She studied the vocabulary of 50 young children when they were 18, 30, 42, and 54 months of age, as well as the amount (quantity) and type (quality) of words the parents used with their children. She found certain factors that contributed to a child’s vocabulary one year later, such as the parents’ education and the child’s previous vocabulary. But some of her most interesting findings were that:
• children’s vocabulary at 30 months was influenced by the quantity (number) of words a parent used one year earlier – This means that children aged 12-24 months benefit from hearing lots of talk and many examples of words.

• children’s vocabulary at 42 months was influenced by parents’ use of a variety of sophisticated words one year earlier – Children aged 24-36 months have learned a lot of common vocabulary, and are ready to learn more difficult words, such as “purchase” instead of “buy”, or “weary” instead of “tired”.

• children’s vocabulary at 54 months was influenced by parents’ use of narratives (talking about things that happened in the past or in the future) and explanations one year earlier – Children aged 36-48 months benefit from conversations about things that happened in the past (e.g. an outing they went on, something funny that happened at preschool, etc.) or something that is planned for the near future (e.g. a trip to see Grandma) is helpful. And providing explanations about things (e.g. answering children’s “why” questions) is also helpful at this age.
Rowe concluded that “quantity…is not the whole story” and that these other influences also have an impact on children’s vocabulary [2, p. 1771]. This is important information, as much literature that advises parents about children’s speech and language development encourages parents to talk to young children as much as possible (quantity). But Rowe’s study highlights the importance of quality, especially for children aged 24-48 months. Parents should try to keep one step ahead of their child – modelling words and concepts that are slightly beyond their child’s level to help his vocabulary grow.
How to help your child learn new words
From Rowe’s study, we know that:
• young children (12-24 month olds) benefit from exposure to lots of words (quantity)
• toddlers (24-36 months) benefit from hearing a variety of sophisticated words
• preschool children (36-48 months) benefit from conversations about past and future events as well as explanations
This tells us what to say, but what about how to say it?
Here are some tips to keep in mind when modeling new vocabulary for your child:
• Follow your child’s lead – This means emphasizing words that come up during everyday conversations and interactions with your child. If you talk about what interests your child, it is more likely your child will pay attention and learn a new word. If your child is interested in playing with cars, you can model words like “push”, “beep beep”, or “fast” with a young child or more complicated words like “mechanic”, “speed”, or “traffic” with a toddler. You can provide explanations for preschoolers like “he needs to get a new tire because his tire is flat”, talk about events in the past such as “remember when we had to take our car in to be repaired?”, or events that will happen in the future such as “Our car is dirty. Maybe we should go to the car wash.”

• Children need to hear a word several times before they start to use it – This means that you might use a word with your child many times before your child actually says the word himself. Children’s understanding of words precedes their use of words. So, they will understand far more words than they can actually say. If you repeat words for your child on different occasions, it will give him more opportunities to hear and learn new words.

• Don’t bombard your child with words – Just because quantity is important at some stages of development, this doesn’t mean that you should shower your child with constant talk. You should aim for a balanced conversation between you and your child – you say something, then your child says or does something, and so on. It is important to wait after you say something so you give your child a chance to respond in his own way.

• Help your child understand what a new word means – By giving details about new words or explaining what words means, you build your child’s understanding of new words. For example, if you are playing with cars and introduce the word “passenger”, you might say something like “a passenger is someone who rides in a car or a bus or a train. A passenger goes for the ride but doesn’t drive the car or the bus.” Relating new words to your child’s personal experiences also helps him connect with new words. For example, if you are talking about the word “nervous,” you might say something like “Remember when you started preschool – you felt nervous. But eventually when you were more comfortable there, you didn’t feel nervous anymore.”

• Actions can speak louder than words – If you accompany your words with actions, gestures, or facial expressions, it will help your child understand the meaning of the words. For example, when modeling the word “weary”, you could do a sleeping action (hands under your head) or yawn so that your child understands what the word means. Your voice can also add meaning to a word. For example, if you say the word “frightened” or “terrified” with a shaky voice that sounds like you are scared, it will help your child understand what you mean.

The bottom line… it’s not just how much you say, but also what you say and how you say it that makes a difference for your child’s vocabulary growth….
1. Weitzman, E. & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and Beyond: Building Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood Settings. The Hanen Centre: Toronto.
2. Rowe, M. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development: 83(5), 1762-1774.
3. Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
The Hanen Centre is a Canadian not-for-profit

There are still more suggestions from Deanna Swallow in a North Shore Pediatric Therapy article.

Swallow wrote in 10 Ways to Build Your Child’s Vocabulary:

1. Create language-rich environments to encourage new vocabulary. This might include a trip to the zoo, a seasonal craft, or a fun picture-book. Introduce age-appropriate vocabulary to your child through a fun and memorable experience.
2. Use kid-friendly terms to explain new words. For example, if you are teaching your child what ”zebra” means, avoid a dictionary definition such as: a horse-like African mammal of the genus Equus . Instead, try a simple explanation: a zebra is an animal. It looks like a horse. Zebras have black and white stripes.
3. Encourage your child to brainstorm their own examples of new vocabulary words. For example, if the new word is “little”, you might encourage your child by saying “Can you think of a little animal?”
4. Practice sorting new vocabulary. Encourage your child to describe, sort and categorize vocabulary based on various features. You might think of “3 cold things”, “3 animals” or “3 things that take you places.”
5. Think of synonyms and antonyms. Encourage your child to think of substitute words (e.g. “can you think of another word for enormous?… big!”) or opposite words (e.g. “What is the opposite of hot?… cold!”).
6. Give your child opportunities to practice their new vocabulary words. If you recently enjoyed an outing at the zoo, you might print out digital pictures from the trip. Throughout the following week, enjoy looking at the pictures with your child and remembering what animals you saw. You might also read a picture-book about animals or zoos (“What is this animal called?” or “Can you find a tiger in this picture?”).
7. Introduce new vocabulary words ahead of time. Holidays, seasons, and special outings are all excellent occasions to introduce new words. For example, as Fall approaches you might choose 10 new words about Fall (e.g. pumpkin, Autumn, cool, leaves, apples, jacket, etc). Plan a fun craft that incorporates those new words. You might make play-doh shapes using vocabulary words, draw new words with sidewalk chalk, or search for words in a picture book or magazine.
8. Tap into other senses. Children learn best when information is presented through multiple senses (e.g. touch, sight, sound, smell). To tap into the various, you might have your child stomp to each syllable of new vocabulary words (el-a-phant), draw a picture of the word, or act out the meaning.
9. Encourage older kids to use strategies to remember new vocabulary. They might keep a “vocabulary flashcard box” that includes challenging words from chapter-books, their school curriculum, or new concepts encountered in their environment. Encourage your child to define vocabulary in their own words, and draw a picture to represent it. You might also brainstorm root words or word derivations (e.g. run, running).
10. Avoid vocabulary over-load. Try not to teach too many new words at one time. For example, if you are reading a book with your child, avoid explaining every unfamiliar vocabulary word. Instead, just stick with a few important words. As much as possible, learning should be motivating and stimulate curiosity. Follow your child’s lead, and explore concepts or words that they find interesting. Look for cues that they might feel overwhelmed or frustrated….

Parents must spend time with their children preparing them for beginning their education.
All About Learning Press has a checklist to help parents focus on issues which prepare their child.

All About Learning Press makes several suggestions in Checklist: Is Your Child Ready to Learn to Read?

Perhaps your child already knows the alphabet and loves read-aloud time—but how can you tell if your child is ready to begin formal reading instruction? Fill out the checklist below and evaluate your child’s reading readiness!
Letter Knowledge
[ ] Your child can recite the alphabet song.
[ ] Your child recognizes the capital letters. If you ask your child to point to an m, he can do it.
[ ] Your child recognizes the lowercase letters.
Print Awareness
[ ] Your child knows the proper way to hold a book.
[ ] Your child understands that books are read from cover to back.
[ ] Your child understands that sentences are read from left to right.
[ ] Your child knows that words on the page can be read.
Listening Comprehension
[ ] Your child is able to retell a familiar story in his own words.
[ ] Your child can answer simple questions about a story.
[ ] Your child asks questions (Why did the elephant laugh?) during read-alouds.
Phonological Awareness
[ ] Your child can rhyme. If you say bat, your child can come up with a rhyming word like hat.
[ ] Your child understands word boundaries. If you say the sentence Don’t let the cat out, your child is able to separate the sentence into five individual words.
[ ] Your child can clap syllables. If you say dog, your child knows to clap once. If you say umbrella, your child knows to clap three times.
[ ] Your child can blend sounds to make a word. If you say the sounds sh…eep, your child responds with the word sheep.
[ ] Your child can identify the beginning sound in a word. If you ask your child to say the first sound in pig, your child is able to respond with the sound /p/.
[ ] Your child can identify the ending sound in a word. If you ask your child to say the last sound in the word jam, your child is able to respond with the sound /m/.
Motivation to Read
Use your intuition to understand if your child is motivated to begin reading. The following are all signs that your child is motivated to read and has achieved the understanding that reading is fun.
[ ] Does your child enjoy being read to, at least for short periods of time?
[ ] Does your child pretend to read or write?
[ ] Does your child frequently request read-aloud time and show a general enthusiasm for books?

Education is a partnership between the student, the teacher(s) and parent(s). All parties in the partnership must share the load. The student has to arrive at school ready to learn. The parent has to set boundaries, encourage, and provide support. Teachers must be knowledgeable in their subject area and proficient in transmitting that knowledge to students. All must participate and fulfill their role in the education process.


Reading Rockets

For the Love of Words

Raising Readers: Tips for Parents

Click to access ReadingVocabulary.pdf

School-age Readers

Ready to Learn


Baby sign language

The importance of the skill of handwriting in the school curriculum

The slow reading movement

Why libraries in K-12 schools are important

University of Iowa study: Variation in words may help early learners read better

Where information leads to Hope. © Dr.
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One Response to “Parent homework: Working on vocabulary with your child”

  1. Keith Kevelson January 5, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    Based on school reading lists from the 1890’s, a student was not considered literate unless he could read and answer questions about articles in Atlantic, Harper’s, Collier’s(now defunct,) National Geographic, Popular Science, etc. If this standard was used today, what would the literacy rate be?

    The reading-level in Congress has gradually declined, which has resulted in more and more ambiguous laws that no one, politician or voter, seems to really comprehend. The literacy decline hasn’t just affected citizens legal understanding, it has affected their ability to read everything from scientific texts to computer manuals. It’s a frightening decline.

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