Building Vocab Skills: One Word at a Time



Photo by jeltovski on Morgue File.

My last three posts dealt with creativity, imagination and reading. We discussed how imagination affects one’s reading and comprehension. The more we involve our imagination in our reading, the more we remember and understand what we have read. Reading is about learning. We read to gain information. We begin, as children, learning to sound out words and make sense of sentences. We learn about letters and sounds and combinations, vowels and diphthongs, syllabification and word order, syntax and conceptualization of ideas and thoughts. 

As we grow accustomed to reading, we do it to gain information, insight and inspiration. We begin to secure the basics of grammar and move on to larger chunks of text. We continue building our vocabulary, a process which starts very young. In this post, I want to touch upon this vital aspect of learning and reading. Vocabulary development is instrumental in becoming a good reader. A good reader is one that, not only can follow sentences and call out words, but can follow ideas and concepts. Vocabulary development aides this process.

Vocabulary development is not only beneficial for being able to understand text; but also, in order to express oneself in an efficient and intelligible manner.

As a child, we start with the basics: mommy, daddy, chair, table, pen, TV, couch, chair, floor, toy, water . . . etc. We learn association. My, soon-to-be two-year old, is learning words and association at a rapid rate. She will sit and talk to you for several minutes. Of course, most of what she is saying, at this point, is gibberish!, but she is throwing in some intelligible words here and there. True, it may not make much sense and the order may be all wrong, but she has learned there is a pattern to speaking. Even at her young age, she has realized that communication is about a chain of words strung together. It is not just one word in isolation. This is the type of talk she did when she was younger. It was one word and a point of the finger! Now, she is beginning to try to string words together: to create sentences, build conversation and partake in dialogue.

She is a work in progress! Of course, then again, are not we all?!

There are many things she has nailed down, as far as vocab goes. She knows a pen and cereal and chair and the like. However, there are still some things that stump her. The other day, she brought me a clothespin she had found on the table. She knew it was something, she just did not know what! She did not know what to call it. She had not learned the name association of that particular object. She handed it to me and looked up at me with an inquiring look on her face. The look told me she had a question and the question was: What is this thing called? So, I told her it was a clothespin. She looked at me and mimicked what I said back to me: A clothespin she said, while shaking her head.

Just today my four-year old daughter was wearing a beanie on her head because of the cold. My father asked her why she was wearing a toboggan on her head. She replied, It is not a toboggan, it is a hat! She has no idea, or association with a toboggan; in her mind, my dad could just have easily called it a pumpkin! She knows it as a hat, nothing more. As she grows older, she will learn the difference in different types of head dresses; but, for now, hat is a big enough word to encompass them all.

Again, these are teaching moments, where we can direct our children into vocabulary acquisition and development. Of course, we do not want to overload them. At her age, a hat may well suffice; then, as she gets older, we can distinguish a hat from a toboggan.

As adults, we must remember that vocabulary acquisition and development is not only something for children. We should continue doing it ourselves. As you read, have a notebook handy to jot down unfamiliar or new words. Or, have a pen or pencil and notate the word in the book, or write it in the margin or at the bottom of the page. Often times, when encountering an unknown word, it is best to stop right then and look it up. However, a good trick to try is contextual clues. (This is great for kids as well.) Read the sentence or sentences with the unknown word in it. Then, based on the context, try to ascertain what the word means on your own. Once you have a guess, look it up and see how you did!

One thing I will do, if I don’t want to stop each time a new word comes up and look up the meaning, is I will notate it in the text. Typically, the way I do this is by circling the word with a pencil. Then, at the top of the page, I will put a number. If there were three words on the page I was unfamiliar with, I will put the number 3 at the top of the page. As I go back and flip through the book, I will be sure to capture all the words I wanted to look up. I also use the notebook technique as well, but this more info does take a little extra time and calls for the extra hassle of having it with you as you read; depending on your circumstances, this may or may not be feasible.

Either way, the important thing is to continue to expand our vocabulary. Again, not only will this benefit us, but, it will be a great example to our kids.

The most important thing is ensuring your kids are building a strong, healthy vocabulary. There are exercises you can do with them to help them. There are games you can play (Tic-Tac-Toe, Hangman . . . etc.) that can make it fun and educational at the same time. Of course, there are many media productions to help as well (educational cartoons, computer games).

Above all, instill in your kids a desire to learn. Vocabulary development will be a great and fruitful part of the learning journey!