Vocabulary Proficiency for Younger Learners: Conversation and Engagement

#vocabulary #words #parenting #childdevelopment

“Just read!”

“Memorize 100 words by Friday!”

Even though most high school students miserably stare at one another just thinking about these daunting expectations in addition to every other demand of their academic work week, such dictates often reign supreme as the default vocabulary strategies of many educators and parents. Inundating teens with new rapid-fire academic and complex, content-specific words to cram for a multiple choice test may in fact work for some students in the short term. However, genuine comprehension and long term vocabulary retention will remain unattainable if these are the sole methods of vocabulary instruction. According to, “Students Must Learn More Words, Say Studies,” an article written by Education Week’s Sarah D. Sparks, vocabulary knowledge is haphazardly enforced in classrooms and homes, and therefore, largely ineffective.

That informal style led to major discrepancies in both the number and difficulty of vocabulary words, with some teachers discussing only two words a day and others as many as 20. Moreover, because most words were chosen from the stories, they had little connection to other words being taught at the same time and were rarely words that students would need to understand instructions or academic content in later grades.

In fact, “prior studies have shown that students learn words better when they are grouped with related words.” Furthermore, All About Adolescent Literacy’s article, “Developing ‘Student-owned Vocabulary,” clarifies that students must interact with just one word up to 30 times before it becomes second nature. If language acquisition is such a challenge, what can parents and educators do to teach and reinforce basic, academic and discipline specific language that and professions demand?

Start earlier. Playing the procrastination game until 9th grade or high stakes college admissions testing is a catastrophic oversight. Forge environments rich with nuanced vocabulary as soon as your child can say “Dada.” Susan Canizares’ article, “For the Love of Words” in Parent’s Magazine featured on Scholastic.com observes that language acquisition or vocabulary competency begins when children begin walking. “Between the ages of 18 and 36 months, language growth occurs very quickly: babbling becomes more deliberate in tone, and children literally learn new words every day.” At this tender, but monumental age of developmental growth, children have the capacity to interact with thousands of words through listening, speaking, and creative activity. Reading comprehension and written skills tend to develop in kindergarten to second grade. As a result, parents and preschool educators should purposefully model and reinforce “adult” language through conversation, recreation and work with youngsters. Many effective instructional methods are available to boost your younger student’s vocabulary savvy at home, in a preschool Headstart classroom, or at an outdoor 6th grade camp.

  • Read a classic fairy tale or fable, such as Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
  • Ask your child active listening questions; “Why do you think the tortoise won?”
  • Repeat your child’s answer with correct grammar and academic vocabulary: “So you mean since the hare or rabbit was too proud or arrogant and the tortoise persevered, the rabbit napped while the tortoise finished the race.”
  • Paraphrase the first half of the tale and ask your child to summarize the ending.
  1. Use drawings, pictures or everyday objects as conversation starters to supplement vocabulary knowledge.
  • Board games like Monopoly Junior Board Game are wonderful ways to bond with your child and simultaneously combine conversation, visual illustrations and tangible symbols as students move their pieces around the board.
  • Household items, landscapes and infrastructure, walks in the park, a day at the beach, running errands and a number of other places and activities can be leveraged to support everyday and academic language acquisition.
  • Parents model- “Wow, those colorful chrysanthemums or flowers are really eye-catching!”
  • Ask questions- “What’s your favorite chrysanthemum? Why?”
  • Wait for your student’s response- ”I like the orange one because it’s big.”
  • Repeat their child’s answers with corrections- “Oh, so you like the tangerine colored chrysanthemum because it’s larger than the rest. What color is it? What kind of flower is it?”
  • Continue with this line of questioning and engagement until your child demonstrates the desired response.
  1. Encourage your student, particularly as they near kindergarten, to paraphrase your modeled responses in complete sentences!

While “just reading” and memorization will eventually play their roles to some extent, active engagement through listening, speaking, visual supports and kinesthetic or tactile activities are fundamental techniques that will assuredly foster your student’s lifelong pursuit of everyday and academic vocabulary achievement. And the younger parents and educators begin, the better!

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