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Why is teaching vocabulary so important?

Why is teaching vocabulary so important?

Why words matter
A child's linguistic competence – how well they understand the rules of a language and their ability to use it correctly – also determines how well a child’s knowledge is organized. Children with a larger vocabulary are more confident, and tend to do better academically in all subjects – including math. Unsurprisingly, children with a richer vocabulary and improved reading comprehension also read more for pleasure. Vocabulary activities are essential to helping children develop these skills.

Words can open doors…
By the time children reach school age, there are large disparities in the number of words they know. This soon leads to achievement gaps. Children with limited vocabulary struggle to take full advantage of academic experiences, and fall even further behind.

And close achievement gaps…
Achievement gaps in vocabulary development grow with age and persist into adulthood. According to research, students who have an above-average vocabulary by age 10 have a higher-than-average rate of vocabulary growth during subsequent years. Studies have also shown that poor literacy skills in 16-24 year-olds have been associated with limited job and educational prospects.

Words can be soothing…
Words affect behavior too. Preschool-age children with superior oral vocabularies are better able to understand their own emotions, actions and errors in communication. In short, words can make your child’s world a more mindful, thoughtful space.

Does my child need to learn "hard" vocabulary words?
In order to expand their word base independently, children need to develop what educational specialists call "word consciousness". This refers to an awareness of and motivation to learn new words. Children with word consciousness are better attuned to nuances such as the difference between the written and spoken word, and why certain words are used instead of others. Introducing rarer words like ‘extraordinary’ instead of ‘amazing’, or ‘vile’ instead of ‘nasty’ promotes word consciousness.

Words feed your mind...
As parents, we spend a lot of time explaining to our children why vegetables are good for them. Imagine if we put the same amount of thought into teaching them new words. Word consciousness can be as important and life changing as good nutrition. Children who learn rare words when they are young not only learn to appreciate such vocabulary, but will enjoy reading more. The benefits snowball: by reading more, they will discover new words, experiment with writing, and express themselves more fluidly.

A diet of dull words starves imagination...
The words we use in everyday conversation are not as sophisticated as the words we read in books. The vocabulary found in comic books, novels and magazines is three times richer than English spoken by adults. Conversation is important. However, it is the more complex, varied vocabulary found in books that children need, to gain meaning from what they read and to achieve academic success.

Doesn’t my child learn enough words at school?
Your child will not learn enough words at school alone. English-speaking children know about 10,000 words by the age of 6. Between 6 and 8, children who are frequently read to and receive direct vocabulary instruction can learn an additional 2,000-3,000 words per year. Schools are already overburdened by everything they need to cover. This leaves little time for implementing the most recent research methods and for actively expanding a child’s word base.

English language teachers might only cover 400 of the 3,000 words a child needs to succeed academically. In most cases these are not ‘rich words’. The home environment lays the groundwork

Words should be shared…
Children who grow up in homes where books and conversation are valued, generally do better in school. Additionally, children who grow up with adults who enjoy reading are more likely to read for pleasure.

Reading to your child daily has a direct and positive impact on their vocabulary and this is further enhanced if you read to them in an interactive way. This means delving into the content of the story, and encouraging them to ask questions and make predictions. When reading aloud, images, humor, tone of voice, exaggerated facial expressions, and gestures all strengthen understanding and retention. And vocabulary games are always a fun way to mix things up.

Sources for further reading:

[1] Neuman, S. B. & T. S. Wright (2013). All About Words. Increasing Vocabulary in the Common Core Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

[2] Beck, I., McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

[3] Baumann, J. F. & Kameenui, E. J. (1991). Research on vocabulary instruction: Ode to Voltaire. In J. Flood, J.D. Lapp & J.R. Squire (Eds.), Handbook on research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 604-632). New York: MacMillan.

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Spelling Targeted Practice Grade 1

Deep Dive

Read our report on the Science of Reading. Research-based reading instruction must incorporate the 5 pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This report provides an easy to understand overview of each of these pillars and explains the important connection between how the brain learns to read (the Neuroscience of Reading) and how we teach children to read (The Science of Reading Instruction). It also explains why helping children build connections between letters and sounds, through phonics and phonemic awareness, is so crucial for the developing reading mind. This report is perfect for sharing with colleagues and friends!