Tag Archives: ideas for building vocabulary

One way to learn English vocabulary: Study Latin and Greek roots

When I was in high school, studying Latin, I experienced one of those “light bulb” moments when I discovered that many of the words I used every day in English came from Latin. And I realized that if I could learn Latin words, I could increase my English vocabulary exponentially!

child looking at a unicycle, bicycle and tricycle

Even young children can increase their vocabularies if they learn Latin and Greek roots. For example, suppose a child plays the game “Uno.” The child learns quickly that “uno” means one. But so do many words that begin with uni. Uniform means one kind of clothes worn every day. Unite means everybody becomes one big group. Universe means one huge collection of stars and planets. Unicycle means a bicycle with one wheel.

Teaching children new vocabulary words using Latin roots has many advantages.

  • Many ESL children who come from Latino backgrounds already are familiar with many Latin roots and the meanings of the roots because the roots and meanings are the same or similar in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Connections to new English words are already a part of their vocabularies.
  • Instead of children learning isolated words which bear no relationship to one another, children can learn word families which are connected by a single idea. For example, “ped” in Latin means foot. Pedal, pedestrian, and pedicure all have meanings related to feet.
  • Children can combine two roots to understand some English words which don’t need to be studied separately. For example, bicycle comes from “bi” which means two and “cyclus” which means circle.
  • Certain areas of study, such as biology and mathematics, use Latin or Greek roots for basic vocabulary. Children who are fascinated by dinosaurs can look at pictures of many different kinds and notice that many names contain the root “–saurus” which means “terrible lizard.” Others have names with the root “pod” which means foot or feet.

One way to begin learning vocabulary from Latin and Greek roots is to have children study the words for numbers, from which there are so many derivations.  Duo, meaning two, has led to duet, duel, and duplicate.  Tres, meaning three, has led to triple, tricycle and triangle.  Quator, meaning four, has led to quarter, quart, and quatrain.

Online you can find many Latin and Greek root vocabulary-building websites as well as workbooks devoted to teaching vocabulary through roots. I am mystified why this way of approaching vocabulary is not used more often. I considered it a short cut way to study for the SAT!

My child knows how to read pretty well for a first grader. Should I still read aloud to her?

Yes! Here’s why:

  • A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up with a child’s listening level until eighth grade, according to Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook. A younger child can appreciate a book she cannot read yet—the plot, the descriptions, the characters and the vocabulary—if an adult reads it aloud to her.

    Father reading to child and child asks, 'How old is Old McDonald?"

    To enlarge, click on the picture.

  • Reading aloud to a child attracts him to reading by himself. He takes pleasure from being read to, and will want more of that pleasure even if an adult is not available to read to him. He will delight in life-long reading.
  • Books contain rich vocabulary, words more numerous than what we parents say on an everyday basis to our children. Children learn the vocabulary from the books we read aloud because we pronounce the words properly and because we explain them to our children. With such a rich vocabulary they are better prepared to understand their teachers and the reading they do on their own.
  • In books read aloud, children hear more sophisticated grammar than they read in grade-level books. Subconsciously they learn good grammar.
  • Good books contain the kind of values we want to pass on to our children. Reading these books aloud offers opportunities to discuss these values with our children.
  • Reading to fidgety children increases their attention span. It gives them practice sitting and listening which they need to do in school to succeed since so much school instruction is verbal.
  • Read-aloud time is bonding time. Do you remember in To Kill a Mockingbird how first grader, Scout, would sit on her father’s lap while he read legal papers aloud? She didn’t care what he read. It was their special time together.

How can I jump start my child’s reading comprehension

Reading comprehension—taking meaning from printed words—is the goal of all reading. Before reaching this goal, independent readers need to advance through three other stages: recognizing that the 42 sounds in English are represented by 26 letters and combinations of letters; recognizing that arranging those letters or letter pairs with other letters creates words; and being able to say the words aloud (or in the mind) in such a way that the sounds represent the way people speak English. If children can do this, then children are in a position to comprehend what they read.

Chart of 4 reading components

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

But even with all this good foundation, some children flounder when it comes to understanding what they read. There are many reasons. One of the most important, especially for ESL students and for culturally deprived children, is not understanding the vocabulary.

What can a parent or teacher do to jump start reading comprehension?

Ask the right kind of questions, according to reading expert Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher whose views are highlighted in the February issue of Reading Rockets, an online source for excellent information about reading.  (For a link, see the end of the blog.)

According to Dr. Shanahan, three kinds of questions should be asked to guide students into understanding a text:

  • First, what are the important issues and important details raised by the reading selection? When Junie B. Jones misses the school bus, for example, the young reader should be questioned about why Junie B. didn’t want to take the school bus, not where she sat on the bus or who annoyed her. At the end of the story, why did Junie B. finally run outside to talk to the janitor? “Close reading”—the kind of reading demanded by the Common Core Standards—is not the same as trivial reading, according to Dr. Shanahan.

questions to ask when reading closely

  • Second, how has the author crafted the reading selection? These kinds of questions should be “text dependent.” That is, the child should be able to answer these questions only if the child has read the text. In Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, for example, what kind of mood is Alexander in when he wakes up? Why is that kind of mood important for the start of the story? Is Alexander the oldest child, the middle child or the youngest child? What difference does this make in the story?
  • Since a part of crafting a reading selection is choosing the vocabulary to use, children should be asked about important vocabulary words. What is Australia? Where is Australia? What is a janitor? Why is he at school when the children have gone home?
  • Third, what are the conclusions a reader can take from the story? What are the big ideas?  What has Junie B. learned?  Why are Junie B’s mother and teacher happy and not mad at the end of the story? Will Junie B. take the school bus in the future?  Why does Alexander’s mother say again and again that some days are like that, even in Australia? Why does she say Australia and not a nearby city? Why does Alexander say that too, at the very end of the book?  The purpose of these questions, according to Dr. Shanahan, is to interpret the text.

Dr. Shanahan recommends asking questions in the same order as the information is presented in the reading selection. He says it is not important to ask a particular number of questions, or that the number of questions from each of the three categories be equal. Always there should be some questions from each category asked, but sometimes one kind of question needs to be more thoroughly investigated than the other two. In particular, understanding how a writer crafted a reading selection will demand closer reading and might require more questions from a parent or teacher.

To read the posting on Reading Rockets, go to http://www.readingrockets.org/blog/examples-close-reading-questions. While you are there, sign up for the free monthly newsletter full of good ideas about teaching reading.

How to know ahead of time if a child will do well in reading, part 2

In our past blog, we discussed one of the two best predictors of later reading achievement, an awareness of letter sounds, based on the research of Dr. Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University.

Today we will look at the second predictor, an ability to rapidly name objects.

Do you remember the story of Helen Keller, the blind and deaf child, who with the help of a gifted teacher, Annie Sullivan, learned to read and speak? Her progress began when one day she recognized that water has a name. From that “Eureka!” moment, Helen realized that everything has a name.

A toddler goes through the same process of learning that everything has a name. This happens at about 18 months when various parts of the child’s brain work in sync to integrate concepts. First, the child names concrete things (what we call nouns), such as Mom, Dad, cat, and dog. Every day the child adds new words, many of which come from the books read to him.

A little later, a child begins to name letters. This activity is sophisticated. The child realizes that those abstract shapes we call letters mean something. One time my friend offered a two-year-old a small stuffed animal which she had received at a fast food restaurant. The toddler looked at the tag on the toy and said, “Chick-fil-A.” Of course he couldn’t read, but he recognized the familiar shape of the letters on the red background.

Learning to recognize letters and numbers and to give them names is the beginning of reading. Here is how you can help a child learn to name things.

  • Play “Simon Says” so that the child learns her body parts.

Simon says Put your left arm up

  • Play “I see something. . .blue” so that the child needs to name objects in the room, in the car or in the grocery store.
  • Teach your child the ABC song, making sure she eventually learns that “elemeno” is actually four separate letters.
    child making the letter T
  • Point to familiar letters in unfamiliar places, such as the first letter of the child’s name in a sign or on a cereal box.
  • Read to your child. For the youngest children, let them absorb the pictures and name objects in the pictures. For three-year-olds and up, read the words, using your finger to point to the words as you read.

For a well-prepared child, reading doesn’t begin in school. It begins years before.

How much do you know about reading and vocabulary?

1. How many word families (go, going, goes, went, and gone, for example, are one word family) does an incoming ninth grader need to know?  a. about 1000  b. about 10,000  c. about 100,000  d. about 1 million

2. If a student reads widely 60 minutes a day, five days a week, how many words will he read in a year?  a. about 30,000  b. about 100,000  c. about 1 million  d. about 2.5 million

3. If a student reads widely for 60 minutes a day, five days a week, about how many new vocabulary words will he learn in a year?  a. 1000  b. 2000  c. 3000  d. 4000

4. If a teacher assigns a student to look up vocabulary words, and to write their definitions, and to write sentences using the words properly, is this an effective way to learn new vocabulary words?  a. yes  b. no

5. If a student reads all assigned school reading, but does not read widely outside of assigned reading, can a student learn as much vocabulary as he needs to know?  a. yes  b. no

Click here for  ANSWERS

Son and mother reading on a park bench.So what can parents do to make sure their children—even beginning readers—learn the vocabulary they will need to succeed in school?

  • Read often and widely to your children. Choose fairy tales, how-to books, biographies and any subject of interest to your child.
  • Once your child can read independently, make sure she does. You read one page while she reads the next; or you read your book while she sits next to you reading hers.  If you model the behavior you expect, you are more likely to get it than if you watch TV while you ask your child to read.
  • When your child asks you what a word means, tell her, and sometimes explain how you know or how your remember that word. If you don’t know a meaning, look it up.  Make your child familiar with dictionaries, thesauruses and online search engines.
  • Make sure your child knows the vocabulary of the subjects she is studying in school. If she is learning her shapes, she needs to know circle, square, rectangle, oval, rectangular prism and trapezoid.  If she is studying grammar, she needs to know her parts of speech.
  • Some words have one meaning in one context (to set the book on the table) and have another meaning in another context (the set of odd numbers). Make sure your child knows multiple meanings of everyday words.
  • Let your child see you figuring out the meanings of words through context clues, through breaking a word into prefixes, roots and suffixes, and through the use of dictionaries, thesauruses and online search engines. Help her to do this over and over, so she has strategies to use to figure out new words.
  • Engage in conversations with your child using new-to-her vocabulary words. These could be discussions about something you are reading together or about what she studied in preschool today.  If your child uses words like “thing,” “something,” or “stuff,” ask her to use a more specific word.

To learn, we need to know the vocabulary of what we are learning.  To comprehend reading, we need to know thousands of words.  It begins at the beginning, reading aloud to your child.

You diagnose the reading problem

You diagnose the reading problems.Situation:  A first grader can read CVC words in lists and on flash cards.  When another consonant is added to create a blend CCVC word (cot to clot, or ran to bran) she stops, sounding out the first consonant and skipping the second consonant.  She asks what the four-letter words mean.

When she sees paragraphs, she cringes and says, “That’s too hard.”  Throughout a half-hour lesson she asks every five minutes or so if the lesson is over yet.  The mother is concerned that this child is behind her classmates in reading.


  • This little girl is already intimidated by the reading process. Her repeatedly asking if the lesson is about to end shows her discomfort with reading.  This child needs much encouragement.
  • Repeating successful work might be a good way to begin a lesson in order to give the girl confidence.
  • She could benefit from frequent but short lessons (ten or fifteen minutes), perhaps with a timer.
  • How two consonants work together to form blended sounds is a new concept for her. Working on one blend each lesson (“bl,” for example) might be a good place to begin.  She could be shown pictures of “bl” words (blue, black, blaze, bleed, blocks, blossom, blueberry, blush, blow, and blouse).
  • After sounding out the words and recognizing the “bl” sound, she could be shown the “bl” letter blend. Letter tiles moved slowly together to form BLVC words could reinforce the blended sound of those letters.
  • She also needs work on vocabulary, so as often as possible seeing a picture of the new word, or acting out the new word, might help her remember its meaning.

As for the mother’s concern that the child has fallen behind classmates, that might be true.  However, the girl is not far behind and can easily catch up with frequent, short, unpressured lessons.  Her mother might read to her strictly for pleasure, perhaps pointing out a CVC word here and there that the child probably knows.  The mother could keep a list of words that the child can read on the refrigerator, asking the child to add a word or two each day a day so the child and the mother can see progress.