Even before they understand what is being said, children pay attention to speech, listen for critical sound changes, and focus on the rhythm and intonation of language (de Villiers & de Villiers, 1979). Month by month, they learn new words and discover new rules of language. They also learn that words are used for real purposes.
What it means
Vocabulary is central to understanding what we read. Not knowing the meaning of most of the words in a book inhibits comprehension. Young readers use words they know and use when speaking to make sense of what they read. As readers develop, they encounter new words that are not part of their oral language; a key part of comprehension is being able to quickly understand those words. A typical first-grader learns 3,000-6,000 new words, a number nearly impossible to teach directly (Chall, 1983). Most of these words are learned through everyday experiences with language, including:
- Talking to and interacting with adults and other children in familiar and new contexts
- Listening to stories and poems read aloud
- Reading and talking about books and stories (Armbruster et al., 2001)
Children also learn new words through modeling or direct instruction (Armbruster et al., 2001). The latter includes:
- Teaching specific words and concepts. These include words critical to the main idea(s) in a story, useful words children see again and again, and words that are too difficult to read.
- Providing repeated exposure to words. Children need to see a word several times before they know it well enough for comprehension.
- Teaching strategies to learn new words. Readers use context clues, find smaller words within words, and break words into parts to figure out meaning.
What to look for
Watch as children listen, discuss, and read books and stories. Comprehension requires that children know most of the words they encounter. As children successfully build their vocabulary, they will be able to:
- Use genre (e.g., fairy tales, letters) to figure out unknown words. Example: Letters begin Dearů
- Use context to figure out unknown words. Example: The topic is baseball, so the word beginning with c is catcher.
- Reread text to clarify meaning.
- Figure out unknown words by applying knowledge of: consonant blends, digraphs, long and short vowels.
- Easily read words that recur in text.
- Recognize a large body of sight words.
How to support learning
The best way to help children build vocabulary is through conversing and listening to good books. In addition to reading to and with them, engage children in word play to support vocabulary development.
1. Word Sorts
- Young children like to have fun with words in concrete ways. Think of a category or favorite topic such as animals, transportation, or toys, and invite them to think of as many words as they can that fit into the category.
2. Word Bank Book
- Children like to collect all kinds of things, from cards to words. Make a word book for each child by stapling blank pages together. As children come across new words they would like to "keep," help them write them in their books. Children will enjoy collecting big words like brontosaurus and small words like it.
3. Writing Partners
- Invite a child to tell a story while one of you writes it down. Talk about the story and point out special words the child used.
Word and vocabulary books
For more information, see the LEARNS website for this article and bibliographical references at www.nwrel.org/learns/feature/index.html.