Grow a Reader: Vocabulary

By Elizabeth Fitzgerald

As adults, we often take the vocabulary we read in our books for granted, but, for a child, that vocabulary is like a treasure, waiting to be discovered through the sands of all the other words in a story. Children are still building a base of words, and often times it’s not until they ask for a definition that we adults realize that children don’t always know what we’re saying.

For me, the realization came during one of my Mother Goose Time Grow a Reader classes. I was reading Oh My Oh My Oh, Dinosaurs by Sandra Boynton (a favorite author of mine). At one point she tells of the dinosaurs of being crammed in an elevator. A child quickly interrupted me and asked me what crammed meant . . . and I had to think about it! It’s one of those words we adults just know, but how to define it in a way that a young child would understand? I think I ended up defining it by example. I asked her if she had ever put all of her stuffed animals into a small space where they didn’t really fit. She said yes, and I told her that means she crammed them into a location—just like the dinosaurs were crammed in the elevator!

This is a perfect example of why reading to our children is so important. Many of us love to talk to each other. Once children begin to develop their language skills, they also love to talk! And, as Scholastic points out, even adult conversations come mostly from a knowledge bank of 3,000 words, but most adults know upwards of 20,000! That vocabulary knowledge comes from reading, so by reading to your children, you are exposing them to many more words than they’ll hear in day-to-day conversations. This is important because if children start learning to read with vocabularies that are already strong, they have a better chance of taking an interest in and keeping that interest in reading since they will have a greater knowledge bank to pull from.

So, how can you help improve your child’s vocabulary and get her or him ready for reading? Here are some options:

  • Spend time each day reading out loud to them. If you reach a word that confuses your child, stop and define it—but remember to define it in a way that is easy for a child to understand.
  • Talk about what you are doing throughout the day. Point out objects and define them while at the grocery store, playground, etc.
  • Respond to toddlers' efforts towards conversation. No matter what the method of communication is (babble, gestures, etc.) give them the words for what they are trying to say and pause so they can repeat the words more clearly. (Talk to Me Baby, p 49)
  • “Talk about words. When you introduce a word that is new to the child, talk about other words that sound similar to it or have similar—or opposite—meanings.” (Talk to Me Baby, pg. 178)
  • Share word books with your child. A word book is any book that has a picture of an object and the word for the object next to it (example: picture of an avocado and the printed word avocado). Point to the picture, then point to the word as you’re reading, and then have a conversation about the object. What color is it? Is it food? This type of conversation not only helps build their vocabularies but also makes a lasting impression to help the children remember the word.

Here are some of my favorite books that are great for building a child’s vocabulary.

In the first story of the Napping House, everyone was sleeping. However, now, everyone is restless, and it isn’t until a chirping cricket comes along that the inhabitants of the Napping House are able to settle down.

In this retelling of the story of Cinderella, she is a knowledgeable mechanic, and it’s up to her to save the Galactic Parade when the Prince’s ship breaks down.

There are so many different types of birds, and each one builds its nest a little bit differently. Jennifer Ward tells the story of these birds building nests with simple, rhyming text that introduces a wealth of new vocabulary.

So, you want to be a princess? And, you like sports, building things, and science? NO PROBLEM! Through fun illustrations and rhyming text, Jane Yolen assures girls that just because you don’t wear pink doesn’t mean you have to give up your crown.

Board books have great vocabulary, too! In Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs, follow dinosaurs around as they go about their daily activities.

Everyone is afraid of failure, but Rosie Revere is letting that fear get in her way! But she must overcome her fear of failure if she is going to become the engineer she dreams of being.

Two frogs are getting ready for a day of surfing, but before Bro can surf, he simply MUST finish his book, no matter how lame Dude thinks that is. Before long, Bro’s gasping makes Dude curious. Will the two froggies ever get around to surfing?

We all know the story of the old lady who swallowed a fly, but did you know the story of the dragon who swallowed a knight? Once the dragon starts eating, will he ever stop?

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