Lack of vocabulary impedes children’s reading

Sometimes children with rudimentary first grade reading skills are passed to second grade and then to third grade.  They find themselves unable to read their texts, their worksheet directions, and their tests because they don’t understand the vocabulary.

How can you help?

Help a child to recognize that every subject has a basic vocabulary that children must be able to read those vocabulary words.

For example, in math, students need to be able to read word problems.  That means they need to be able to read numbers written as words—eleven, twelve, twenty-seven.  They need to be able to read operation words like subtraction, difference, equals, and total.

Or in language arts, students need to be able to read parts of speech words like adjective and preposition, punctuation words like apostrophe and semicolon, and literature discussion words like characters, climax and predict.

Help the child to learn the basic vocabulary of every subject.  Here are some ways.

Make BINGO cards of the basic words of each subject and play BINGO with your child. You might start with the child identifying the word you say.  Then give the child the definition of a word and help him understand its name.  Then let him read the word and define it.

Create a deck of cards using difficult words and play Go Fish, making sure the child pronounces the words.

Make word lists, crossing out words as the child masters them.

After the child can read the words and knows what they mean, take typical word problems and ask your child to read them. Focus on reading the words properly.  Then go back and ask what each difficult word means.  When the child can explain, ask how to solve the problem or respond to the question, and watch the child do that, identifying weaknesses to continue working on.

Help the child understand commonly used directional words.

Marilee Sprenger* analyzed the Common Core standards and other sources to develop a list of directional words commonly used in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade.  According to her, they are

  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Describe
  • Distinguish
  • Identify
  • Retell
  • Demonstrate
  • Determine
  • Draw
  • Explain
  • Locate
  • Suggest
  • Support
  • Comprehend, and
  • Develop

These words are not everyday words for little children.  Children need to learn these words’ meanings from teachers and parents.  How?

The adult says the word properly and explains what it means, using it in the context of something the children already know.  Next the children repeat the explanation, paraphrasing the adult’s explanation and using an example of their own.  Children then might draw a picture of the word’s meaning to show that they understand.  The adult should use the word many times and encourage students to write down the word and its meaning.  The adult should continue to use the word in situations in which students must act to show if they understand the word.  Finally, occasional word games, like vocabulary bees and word BINGO games, reinforce the word and its meaning.**

Sometimes we suppose students know words because they have heard them over and over.  But that does not mean they know them.  I worked with a seventh grader who thought “compare” means “contrast.”  It’s important for us to take the time to teach these words so when children encounter them as directions for homework, quizzes or tests, they can perform correctly.

*Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core; 55 words that make or break student understanding,  by Sprenger, 2013

**Building Academic Vocabulary:  Teacher’s Manual by Marzano and Pickering, 2005

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