Strategies to help children with their vocabulary

This month, we talked to Owen Semley, Literacy Coordinator and English teacher at The English College, Dubai. Here, he shares his top tips for supporting your child’s vocabulary development at home.

It is difficult to overstate the significant role vocabulary plays in a child’s academic success. Vocabulary, and literacy in general, is not just an issue for the English classroom. Analysis of international data suggests that a child’s ability to read and the size of their vocabulary has a profound impact on their educational success across the curriculum. This is common sense – we know intuitively that strong reading levels equate to strong study skills. If the exams we expect our children to take are written in English, whether the subject is science, mathematics, literature, or PE, then their ability to engage with these exams will be shaped by their literacy skills.

Beyond the classroom

Beyond an educational setting, the impact of reading ability is even more keenly felt. Studies have suggested that reading ability may predict the type of occupation (and salary level) a learner could expect post education. This means that your child’s reading ability will affect not only their educational attainment but may have a profound impact on their employment opportunities later in life. How then do we address the development of these all-important literacy skills?

Vocabulary pays off

Researchers have argued that, though literacy is a compound skill made up of reading, writing, speaking and listening, we should place our efforts as parents on children’s vocabulary acquisition. Words are the building blocks of language. Paying close attention to your little one’s vocabulary development will significantly affect their reading, their writing, their speaking and their listening abilities.

What to focus on

To develop your child’s vocabulary, first, you should aim to furnish your children with a wealth of words. Again, this seems simple but it is here that parents often wonder which words should be focused on. Research applies three tiers to the words we all learn. Tier 1 is our everyday, high frequency words, such as dog, table, walk, while Tier 3 is our subject specific, low frequency words, meaning things like metaphorical, photosynthesis and trigonometry.

Typically, children have little problem acquiring Tier 1 words from everyday life. Similarly, Tier 3 words are actively taught in the school classroom. This leaves us with Tier 2 vocabulary, which are defined as being academic, but non-subject specific, high frequency words. Tier 2 includes words such as exemplify, fluctuate, or ambiguous. Tier 2 words are often not explicitly taught across the curriculum, and yet they have a significant impact on kids’ literacy. If you want to improve your child’s vocabulary, focusing on Tier 2 vocabulary is the best place to start, and Owen Semley recommends parents research Averil Coxhead’s ‘High Incidence Academic Word list’ for a good reference resource.

Six strategies for parents

The next question parents often have is “How do I teach these words?” Below, we will explore six tried and tested strategies to help parents teach vocabulary at home. These methods are easy, efficient and time effective, but most importantly – they work. A combination of one or two (or all six) strategies, used over time, will make a significant impact on your child’s vocabulary acquisition.

Synonyms and antonyms 

When teaching a new word, it helps to discuss synonyms and antonyms. This allows young learners to connect their new vocabulary to words they are already familiar with. You may discuss synonyms by comparing them –  i.e. “Is ‘beautiful’ a stronger word than ‘pretty’?” or “Can you think of a synonym for ‘splendid’?” Games such as “How many antonyms for ‘terrible’ can we think of?” are also great. Use a thesaurus or an online search engine if you get stuck! This may seem simple, but exploring links to previously learned words allows kids to learn new vocabulary at a much quicker rate, by connecting to words they’re already comfortable with.

Keep word lists

Simple but effective, this technique involves keeping a log of the new words you explore with your little one. A vocabulary journal or even the back of a notebook provides a useful space to keep a record of the words you have learned. Most importantly, this technique allows you to go back, and revisit words previously acquired, helping you to keep track of your child’s vocabulary development over time.

Reading aloud 

A huge component of language learning is sound. This is called phonological awareness and phonological decoding – linguistics terminology for sounding a word out. Often words are difficult to learn because they have unusual spellings that we struggle to say. Reading together is a great way to balance this out as reading aloud with a child helps cultivate their phonological awareness. Other strategies, such as echo reading (where you read a sentence and ask your child to repeat the same sentence) can help us to model this phonological decoding for our kids.

Research etymology

Etymology refers to the history of the components of a word – or a word’s origin. If we take the word ‘monarch’ as an example, the ‘mon’ in monarch comes from the Greek ‘mono,’ meaning one, and the ‘arch’ comes from the Greek ‘arkos’ meaning ruler. Hence we get the definition of monarch as ‘one ruler,’ i.e. the King or Queen. When students are taught this, they are then better equipped to make sense of other words derived from the same etymology. In this case, learning the word ‘monarch’ helps a child figure out the meaning of ‘monorail’ or ‘monologue.’

Looking up the etymology of newly learned words can help students to make connections between the words they are learning and give them the skills to decode new vocabulary for themselves. As an added benefit, in Owen’s experience as a teacher and coordinator, students often find this side of vocabulary learning quite interesting, as it involves some history and can lead to very intriguing and unexpected links between different words.

Make connections

On the back of keeping a word list and exploring etymology, another strategy to help with vocabulary acquisition at home may be to make connections between words. Grouping newly learned words, either by subject, by synonym/antonym relationships, or by etymology, can really help unfamiliar words stick in the memory. Experiment with grouping words in different combinations and see what works for you.

Reading appointments 

This final strategy is not necessarily about vocabulary, but about reading and organisation in general. Many parents wonder how they can help their children read more. Especially in today’s world, with social media and games consoles, it seems harder than ever to get children to read. One useful strategy is to set ‘reading appointments,’ or short windows of time that are pre-planned for reading.

Fifteen minutes straight after school is a fantastic and easy to fit-in approach, but after dinner or before bed may work better for you and your child. Either way, short, regular windows of reading are always better than infrequent but long stretches. Keeping a ‘reading appointment’ allows for consistent time spent on developing your child’s overall literacy skills and gives you an opportunity to work on some of the strategies mentioned above.

Reading is a complex skill made up of various components and vocabulary is a fundamental aspect of overall literacy ability. Outside of school, the best way parents can support their children in this is by focusing on developing their Tier 2 vocabulary. By using some of these quick, but effective methods with your little one, you should see a great improvement in your child’s vocabulary development, allowing them to get closer to their learning potential!

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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