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Instilling a Love of Words in Your Child

by Julie Wood

Julie Wood

Julie Wood is a literacy expert and an educational consultant. She is also an advisor for the upcoming PBS KIDS Island. Read more »

Sorry, Julie Wood is no longer taking questions.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words. . .
--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Twenty-five high-spirited boys and girls would re-enter my fourth-grade classroom after noonday recess and head straight for the carpeted area in front of the reading chair, an old rocking chair I'd found at the flea market. This was the time of day when I would read to them from the library book of the moment - - "Charlotte's Web," 'Island of the Blue Dolphins," or maybe "Little House in the Big Woods."

I was twenty-six and was teaching in a small town in New Hampshire. I had not yet hit my stride as a classroom teacher. Before this assignment, I worked with struggling readers and writers as the school's reading specialist. I learned from veteran teachers that reading aloud after recess was "a good way to settle them down."

But reading together for a half-hour or so a day did so much more for us. We got to know each other through the books we read, and soon we developed a common language. We could draw upon the gentle humor of Charlotte and Wilbur, the pig that she, a spider, saved. We could talk about surviving on your own on a tropical island long before Tom Hanks showed us how in "Castaway." We could discuss the challenges that befell the early pioneers who settled the danger-fraught frontier after reading several books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Those were wonderful teaching moments - - the kind you look back on decades later and say to yourself, well, if nothing else, I helped my students develop a passion for children's literature. But there was more. We also, together, developed a love of words. I think it was when we were reading "James and the Giant Peach" that we made a subtle shift from not just talking about characters, plots, and settings, to also talking about language. We were intrigued by all those Technicolor words that Roald Dahl liked to flash before our eyes. An author who never talked down to kids, Dahl used words like pandemonium, malevolently, and enthralled, which were often new to fourth graders. Beginning with the words from "James and the Giant Peach," we started keeping track of colorful words, posters, and notebooks.

Much later in my career, I learned that instilling a love of words in children was not just an enjoyable way to focus children before their afternoon lessons.  A love of words and a rich reservoir of word knowledge are essential for children. Word knowledge allows children to understand what they read and to express themselves in writing and speaking.

How quickly can children learn words? Experts estimate that children, on average, learn from three to twenty new words a day, which can result in 3,000-7,000 new words a year. But to really know a word takes several encounters, each of which offers rich clues about its meaning. Older children might be interested in learning Greek and Latin roots, which will help unlock the meaning of a great many words, particularly in science and social studies. This is because 60 percent of the words in the English language derive from Greek and Latin roots.

For younger children, try supplementing their reading by co-viewing PBS KIDS programs such as Super Why!, WordGirl and WordWorld. Also, a new series, "Martha Speaks," (about a word-loving dog) will premiere this fall. Be sure to check out the Parent & Teachers section on their web sites.  They're packed with related reading and language activities to do at home.  

If you plan to travel this summer, you'll likely discover great opportunities for vocabulary enrichment wherever you go.  Take advantage of all the exotic and interesting words that you encounter each day and make them part of your family conversations. Try to work them into a family journal or online scrapbook when you get home.

What if your child would rather do anything but read? I highly recommend a book by teacher/author Esmé Raji Codell entitled "How to Get Your Child to Love Reading."  Codell really covers the waterfront here in how to get children psyched about reading.

As you think about reading with your child this summer, what books are you likely to delve into? And how can you make vocabulary learning an integral part of the talk you do in and around books? I look forward to hearing from you!

Sorry, Julie Wood is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


GA of Haddonfield writes...

At age 6 my son recently had a reading explosion that has me very excited. Using the Magic Treehouse series, only a month ago he still needed what I refer to as "one page on, one page off" to get through a book. He could read the text, but insisted that we take turns reading pages aloud to each other. During our reading sessions he'd typically misread a few words on each page he read. As of this past weekend he made a big leap and is now reading entire books silently to himself. In the last three days he's read three books from the series. I'm excited that he's got the motivation, drive and confidence to do all this reading, but I'm concerned he's skimming over words he might not have correct. He might be missing the meaning of a passage, not learning a new word to add to his vocabulary, and instilling habits that will inhibit his reading growth later. I don't want to challenge his reading now for fear of putting a stop to his momentum and taking away from all the excitement, but I do want to make sure he's not cheating himself if he's missing words. What do you suggest I do, if anything at all?

Julie? writes...

Hi there, GA from Haddonfield,

How great that your son has made this gigantic leap as a reader. The Magic Treehouse books look as though they'd be great for stimulating young children's imaginations. They also seem to be chock full of interesting language.

Reading books in the "one page on and one page off" style that you describe is great practice for kids. So often when you're ON, you're reading words that he is soon to encounter. Plus it's great modeling for him to hear you read fluently and with expression.

But okay, then, now he wants to read books to himself and you're concerned that he might be reinforcing some inaccuracies or not understanding a few words. Have you tried asking him to read selected pages to you? If not, you might ask him to read you the pages that were the--funniest, scariest, most exciting--and so on. Or you might ask him to read to you in the voice of one of the most dramatic characters. By hearing him read a few pages you'll get a sense of how he's doing. If he's mispronouncing words or skipping over the more difficult ones you'll know. You could make a game out of learning just those words and not try to tackle every word he might have misread in the entire book. If he's open to this type of activity, you might turn the tables and have him ask you to read the part when. . . or dialogue from your favorite character. This type of sharing will bring you back to where you started with shared reading, but will give your child a more targeted or purposeful, some would say, way to share a book.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

Samantha writes...

My 3 1/2 year old is very much into Dr. Seuss now. So nice to read the classics that I remember from childhood. Some of them are a little crazy, but he loves the rhyming and the pictures!

Julie? writes...

Hi Samantha,
Yeah, the Dr. Seuss books are great all time classics, aren't they? Which ones does your 3 1/2 year old enjoy most. What are some of the whacky words that you two have been playing with? As for the rhyming, keep it up! Rhyming is a great skill for young children to have developed. It's one of several phonemic awareness skills that are so important for young readers to have mastered.

Good luck and thanks for writing!

Jessica writes...

This article is a great reminder of the importance of reading together with children at home and at school. My daughter loves our time reading together before bed. And always talks about the books her teacher reads in school.

In addition, PBS programming has been a great resource and tool for teaching and learning in our house. Thanks, and keep up the great work.

Julie? writes...

Hi Jessica,
I'm delighted to hear that you and your daughter love reading together. It sounds as though you and her teacher are working together in ways that are adding to her enthusiasm.
What have you and your daughter liked the most about PBS programming? Have you been downloading games and activities?

Thanks for writing and keep up the great bedtime sharing of books.

Jill writes...

My 4-year-old goes through spurts where she wants to be read to all the time and then others when she just couldn't care less and has no interest. Suggestions? Or should I not even sweat it at this point?

Julie? writes...

Hi Jill,
It's wonderful that you've been reading books aloud to your daughter. What do you think is behind her spurts of interest vs. couldn't care less attitude? Do you think it's the time of day, or perhaps her level of interest in the books themselves that cause her to switch ON or OFF?

Should you sweat it? No, I don't think you should be anxious about your daughter's lack of interest from time to time. But on the other hand, reading aloud to your child and talking about the books you read--using the fun language that's part of the experience--is one of the best things you can do to help your child become a strong, motivated reader.

Parents often tell me that it's all about routines. Do you think that your daughter would be be more consistently interested in hearing books read aloud if you established bath time or bed time routines that involved books? If so, you might also make an extra effort to draw her into the story when you read, asking her questions along the way (as in, what do you think might happen next?).

What do other moms or dads out there think? Have you established reading routines that work well and are fun? What advice do you have for Jill?

Georgina writes...

Dear Ms Wood

I enjoyed reading your words of advice on reading. I don't have a problem on getting my daughter to read and love books - it's almost the opposite! As a mother of an eight-year-old bookworm, who devours more books than I can keep up with, I wondered if you have any advice for helping her get the most out of her reading. I am sometimes worried that she reads books too quickly and reads one after another but only really on a superficial level - escaping for a while into her book world, but then not digesting it enough to get the "goodness" out of it, before she moves onto the next. She also has a habit of skimming over words that she doesn't really know, because she's racing along, rather than stopping to enjoy the beauty of the language, and to improve her vocabulary.

With a summer ahead of 3 months vacation, and therefore at least 100 books, I would love some ideas on how to encourage her to get the most out of them.

Many thanks.

Julie? writes...

Hi there, Georgina,
Your daughter is quite a voracious reader! Very exciting for both of you. But I can understand your concern that she is zooming through books so quickly that she's not getting as much pleasure out of them as she might.

I have two thoughts for you--one involves language and the other involves keeping a book journal. First, are you and your daughter discussing the books that she's reading? Is she reading any favorite parts aloud to you? If not, you might start a tradition of sharing books together at a particular point in the day, say, when she gets home from school or after dinner.
Second, writing can be a terrific way to solidify the new understandings she's gleaning from her immersion in books. You could buy her a notebook that she could use as a journal for writing about the books she's read. She could write about her favorite characters, illustrate her ideas, and keep track of interesting words.

If you give any of these ideas a try, please write back and let us know. Other bloggers may have suggestions as well. --Julie

Nicole writes...

Hi Julie. I have a 4 year old girl who loves to read. Most of her books are hardcover, picture books with 4 to 8 sentences on each page.

How will I know when it's time for me to buy her some early reader books? I'm concerned that she'll think they're baby books, since their sentences are so short. She won't understand that she's supposed to focus on sounding out the words. Maybe I'm rushing this? Help! Thanks.

Julie? writes...

Hi Nicole,
You must be having a great time reading with your daughter. Is she reading the books you describe, with 4-8 sentences per page, by herself? Are they easily decodable books, that is books that contain words that are easy to decode because they follow the rules of English (think mat, pat, sat, etc.)?

In any case, when you feel she's ready to move on, why not take her to the library and
pull out enticing books that cover a range of difficulty levels. You can take turns reading together, talk about the characters, or discuss the factual information and vocabulary words (in the case of nonfiction books).
My hunch is that this excursion will give you a good sense of where your daughter is now and what books would offer just enough challenge for her. Give us a try and let us know! --Julie

Frances writes...

Do you have any suggestions for helping independent readers make suitable book choices at the library? I made a stand on not letting my 8-year-old read beyond Book 3 of the Harry Potter series, despite the fact all his friends have read them all. Of course, am aware that making it off limits has also made it seem even more exciting! I read the series myself and of course, greatly enjoyed them, but feel the subject matter is not suitable for younger children. Even though he is capable of reading the actual words, I don't think he would understand the concepts. I know these books are very exciting and am delighted that JK Rowling has written books to engage so many young minds (especially boys), but still want to protect my impressionable child from some writing that I think is too grown-up for him. Am I being over-protective or should I continue to screen what he reads?

Julie? writes...

Hi there, Frances. I hear you on the Harry Potter books after book 3, and I think there are many parents of 8-year-olds out there who would agree with you. We can all be fans
of J. K. Rowling and what she has done to get girls (and boys, as you point out) excited about reading while still acknowledging that younger kids aren't quite ready for the advanced themes. But back to your child. For now, while you're waiting for your child to mature to the point where he or she can handle the sophisticated (and often scary) content in book 4 and up, why not get your child about another series intended for younger children. In other words, you can build on your child's enthusiasm for following the same characters through various adventures depending on his or her interests (e.g., fantasy worlds vs. realistic stories about "kids a lot like you"). I'll bet your librarian would have great suggestions. Give it a try and let us know!

Becky writes...

I'm so thrilled that you're reaching out to the greater public to inspire children and their parents to read. I was also an elementary teacher and experienced the same phenomenon with read alouds that you described. Now I have an 18 month old son who is totally addicted to books. Reading is already such an important part of his life, and I never would have guessed that it would happen so early. I commend you in your efforts and I appreciate what you're doing for the lives of so many future read-aholics.

Julie? writes...

Thanks, Becky. It's wonderful to meet a kindred spirit! I appreciate the way you're drawing on your teaching background in sharing books with your 18 month old. What advice do you have for other parents of very young children who want to make reading a big part of family life?
What strategies have been the most successful for you?

Tina writes...

I'm a homeschooling mom and my older two children share my love of reading and both read well ahead of their grade level. My youngest is 7 and struggles with reading. I've tried so many approaches but haven't seemed to hit on the right one for him. We're working with easily decodeable words, but we have to keep going over the same ones time and again - he seems to forget them and we have to start fresh each day. I have noticed that when we are out and about he will introduce himself to people and add "I can't read". It breaks my heart and I'm at a loss as to what to do.

Julie? writes...

Hi Tina,
Gosh, that must be difficult for you and your seven-year-old. The fact that your son has begun to see himself as someone who can't read--and even introduces himself that way--does raise a red flag. The reason why he's struggling despite your best attempts with easy decodable books could stem from a variety of factors. Is there a literacy expert in your community who you can speak with? The sooner you can help your son get on track, as I'm sure you realize, the sooner he can begin making real gains in reading--and come to see himself as a reader.
Best of luck with everything.

Kelsey writes...

I have very young children (one is two years old and the other two months). My two year old is give or take about reading. Sometimes she really wants to and sometimes she would rather do anything else. She very rarely makes it through a whole book (any size). Any suggestions for helping me to inspire my children with reading?

Julie? writes...

Hi kelsey,
Glad to hear that reading is a big part of the routine for you and your two young children.
Have you reading books with them that have interesting textures? For example, have you ever read to them from the plastic books that can go right into the bathtub during a bath time read? Have you tried board books? Or books that have "feelie" things on some pages, such as fur or sandpaper?

What have other parents of young children done to make reading books a fun part of every day? Let's hear from you?

net writes...

I have a 19 month old baby. What kind of books i could read for him to have early start on to develop his vocabulary. I read books that has lots of colors and big pictures which he enjoys so much. I feel like I am not doing enough. Thank you for your advice and recommendations.

Julie? writes...

Hi Net,
It sounds as though you're completely on the right track here with the books you're reading.
And yes, vocabulary is key! It sounds as though you're also engaging in "talk around books" which is fantastic for young children. As for doing enough, how long do you spend with books on an average day? And do you have a particular routine?

Let's hear from other parents of young children--hint, hint, to Becky who has a child
of a similar age. . . ! What success have you had with reading to very young children?

Mary writes...

My child is 3 years old, almost 4 and she appears to like books. How do I approach the early reading she will need for preschool this year?

Julie? writes...

Hi Mary,
That's great that your young daughter enjoys books. Here are a few ideas to help her get ready for preschool--many of which you may already be doing--Making rhymes, playing with words, and thinking about words that begin with the same letter sound. In the literacy field we call these types of activities "phonemic awareness," a skill area that serves as a foundation for phonics and other more advanced literacy skills, such as fluency.

Beyond phonemic awareness you might also have fun categorizing the words you read together, for example naming other things that are bubbly/hot/icy/squiggly, and so on.

What are you doing so far along these lines? Tell the rest of us!

Garima writes...

Hi Julie,
I have 2 yr old toddler boy. He likes watching pbs tv programs all the time .He too likes books with big pictures but he cant go through the whole book. He just get distracted to other things while looking into the books. How I can instill the good reading habits in him.

Julie? writes...

Hi Garima,
Thanks for writing! What shows is your son watching on PBS? Are the books that
he's reading on the same theme, like dogs, or numbers?

In any case, have you tried sitting him on your lap and reading the books aloud to him? If he seems fidgety you could just read a few pages a day. Also, if you ask him questions about what's on the page--the pictures and the letters--it might keep him interested. Also, if he sees YOU reading that will send a strong message to him about how fun, interesting and important reading can be.

Let us know how you do, and keep on reading and talking about books!

gina velazquez writes...

My daughter is five years old and in school has a hard time learning to communicate. Her school will not teach her one-on-one sign language because of financial reasons to hire a licensed therapist. My daughter is trying to learn at home, and I have asked other therapists how they communicate. They tell me with a little sign language. It makes no sense and is hard to understand or even hear my daughter, because she has never spoken.

Can you give me advice for not only deaf children, but for others who can't communicate or have a hard time communicating, because of conditions like angelman syndrome? has more information.

Edited for clarification by Tracey at PBS Parents.

Julie? writes...

Dear Gina,
My heart goes out to you. It must be difficult for you to have to struggle so much in communicating with your daughter. Unfortunately, the sort of help you need goes way beyond my expertise. I have found a few recommended resource for you, though, in a book titled
"Exceptional Children and Youth, 3rd Edition," by Hunt and Marshall (Houghton MIfflin, 2002).
Here they are below, and the very best of luck to you. --Julie

The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf ( See in particular the booklet, "So Your Child Has a Hearing Loss."

Gallaudet University Press ( which publishes many books that might be of interest to you, including "You and Your Deaf Child."

Handspeak, a sigh language dictionary online. Videoclips demonstrate over 3,000 signs. See

HiP Magazine Online ( This website is a resource for "deaf and hard-of-hearing kids and their pals."

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: (Part of the National Institutes of Health; look for information on "Teachers and Kids").

And last, a resource about reading: Schleper, David R. "Reading to Deaf Children: Lessons from Deaf Adults." Washington, DC: Pre-College National Mission Programs, Gallaudet University, 1997. Lots of strategies here that might be helpful for you.

Michelle writes...

Hi, I have 3 children, a girl 5 and two boys, 3 and 1. They all enjoy books in different ways. My daughter learned to read by a phonics web site. I had no idea how to teach her to read and she had the desire. She really enjoyed it and it worked! There were times when she had to take a break because she wasn't "there" yet in her development. Anyway, recently, my daughter has begun wanting to read books to us. However, at times, she gets frustrated with sounding out words. When this happens, what is the best approach? We have asked her if she wants to take a break or encouraged her to look at the letters and try to help her remember their sounds. We tend to get through it but sometimes with a lot of frustration on both our parts. My 3 year old son wants to "read" a book to us too. I just let him "read" the pictures and he points to the words. It is cute to hear what he says and we enjoy it. They both love Word World and Mr. Rogers. The online Word World is great too. It gave our two year old an opportunity to use the mouse and identify letters. He can match them but not always identify them by name. My newly 1 year old loves books. He points to pictures and loves feeling the different textures in the books. Sometimes we "fight" over who is going to hold the book and turn the pages. I like to finish the story and he just likes the experience. I'm trying to get better. Thanks for your article. I found it incredible how many new words children learn a day. Thanks for all the great information.

Julie? writes...

Hi Michelle,
What a lot of great reading you're doing in your household! It's also wonderful that you're co-viewing educational television programs like "Word World" and downloading enjoyable activities.

It sounds as though you're having fun with your boys as you teach them some foundational concepts. The fact that they're "reading" books, enjoying the look and feel of books, and identifying letters is fantastic. It sounds as though you're also engaging them in rich language activities around books.

With your daughter, you'll probably want to scale back a bit since she is getting a little frustrated during your shared reading time. You could download activities that correspond to the PBS shows she watches and help her read the words and/or sentence aloud. Have you read any of the "I Can Read" books together? Try to find some that emphasize "easily decodable" words (families such as pat, mat, fat; pin, win, fin, etc.) to help her build word recognition skills. You can do shared readings of these books, which will help her recognize patterns and learn new words.

Also, you might be interested in a terrific book for parents titled "Straight Talk About Reading," by Susan L. Hall and Louisa C. Moats (Contemporary Books, 1999). It contains a wealth of ideas for helping your child learn to read and write--from early concepts about print to "third grade accomplishments."

Good luck to you and your family. And do keep reading and talking about books! --Julie

Alexis writes...

Hi, I am a mother of a 21/2 yr old boy, who has been fascinated w/ letters and numbers since he was 12 mo old. In fact he was able to know the difference between letters and numbers at 19mo, no matter how hard we tried to confuse him. He was able to read the entire alphabet and #1-10 by 19 mo, even if we mixed the letters and numbers up in flash cards. He loves to be read to. He can fill in the blanks in stories, and he can count and recognize numbers 1-20. I have often wondered if my son is gifted. If so is there anything I can do encourage his gift w/o overwelming him? I asked his ped. for his opinion, and all he told me was to wait until he goes to school and see how he does? Is there any advice you can give me?

Theresina writes...

Hi Julie,

I am happy to see that you had this Q&A for parents. I was raised with books and English grammar appreciation (maybe not so at the time but more so now). My mother taught us that the more you read the more words to your vocabulary you add and the more information you assimilate. Knowing the proper usage of the English language will always do you good in any mode of your life, whether you are in business or not. Unfortunately more of what I see is that most people that I have encountered are not interested in knowing the proper use of the English language or the use of “big” words (what my kids call my vocabulary). I love to read and have instilled this love in all my children – I have three; a girl of 20, a girl of 14, and a boy of 10 along with a grandson of 4.

My son is the most avid reader of all, surpassing even his last school year first, a gold medal “Reading Counts” 3rd grader; he says that he is currently a bronze “Reading Counts” after only three months. That boy would love to be totally immersed in books and will sometimes even “steal” a moment of reading while in class. This is very funny to me since he was the slowest to start reading. He has read almost all the Harry Potter books, is going to be reading the last book now and his level of reading is almost three levels above his own grade. My oldest was the same, her spelling was college level when she was in 8th grade and her vocabulary and reading levels were 11th and 12th respectively. I personally have a library (something I also grew up with) and would like to increase it to a room size library – currently it is only one large bookcase full and three smaller bookcases full.

My mother told me that books are a road map to power – word power that is.

kheem writes...

My son is turning 2 this coming june 3, 2010.. When he was at 1 1/2 yr old he can read already some words.. and now he is turning two his reading ability is getting better.. what book sgoukd i give to my son?

kobirana writes...

You can even whitewash the timber to give it more character. Put a series of storage boxes on top to store potting tools and other gardening elements. This then becomes a destination for the family to create all sorts of potted joy, you could plant annuals the kids could plant vegetables, you could repot indoor plants, you could create feature entrance pots and regularly update them and leave the creativity up to the individual. This now means you have an interactive garden and once the kids have learned the basics, let them make it their own. Happy gardening Jamie.
BAMS colleges

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