Why Vocabulary Matters and How to Teach It

Does your student have a good vocabulary? If you aren’t confident of that, you’ll want to keep reading. First, I’ll explain why children’s vocabularies are vitally important. I’ll also give you some simple strategies for improving vocabulary.

Why Vocabulary Matters

When I began researching language arts for the creation of Grammar Galaxy, I was surprised to learn that the best predictor of a child’s academic success and even life success is not anything more complicated then vocabulary. For example, a bigger vocabulary is associated with higher incomes. Vocabulary means simply the number of words a child can correctly use and understand.

I’ve also learned through experience the importance of developing a child’s vocabulary. One of my sons struggled to learn to read phonetically. He listened to me read all the time in our homeschool, however, and he heard our conversations. When a repairman was in our home, he talked with this son of mine and told my husband that it was like talking with a little adult because of his vocabulary. Had I known then how important vocabulary is, I would not have had as much anxiety about my son’s struggle to read phonetically.

I witnessed the importance of vocabulary in my friend’s dyslexic son’s reading as well. I asked this boy to read aloud for our class and he read a word that he should not have been able to read phonetically. He had to have been exposed to the word before seeing it in print. I knew his mother had him listening to numerous audiobooks. His older brothers had also been doing advanced studies around him for years. His exposure to the word helped him decode it using simple phonics. So just a beginning and a middle sound paired with the context made it possible for him to read a long and unusual word.

Vocabulary is critical for students with reading challenges, but it’s also important for strong readers. Without being exposed to audiobooks, read alouds, and other sources of high quality vocabulary, students will have no idea how to pronounce a word that they see in their reading. This will happen regardless of the quality of a child’s vocabulary studies and it can create some funny moments. My daughter referenced something in the archives, which she pronounced as our chives. I realized she had either not heard the word spoken aloud or had not associated the pronunciation with its more atypical spelling.

Vocabulary is how we measure intelligence without even being aware of it. People who use “big words” correctly are assumed to be more intelligent. If a child’s vocabulary is broad, essays, job applications, and interviews are likely to make a good impression.

Vocabulary is also a part of college entrance exams and is a requirement for completing tasks of logic. If you don’t know what abase and extol mean, you can’t determine the relationship between them, and you won’t be able to solve the analogy. They’re opposites, by the way, meaning to belittle and to praise.

I hope I have convinced you how important it is that our children are developing an expansive vocabulary. It will serve them well in future studies and in life.

But no matter where your child is in the educational process, it is not too late to help him build a bigger vocabulary. In fact, it’s not too late to build your own vocabulary.

6 Easy Ways to Teach Vocabulary

I have six strategies for improving vocabulary for you.

#1 Read quality books.

Reading or listening to books that include rich vocabulary is the best way to enrich a child’s vocabulary. It can be challenging to determine what is considered a quality book. You can look up the reading level of the book and that is one source of information. Most classics include high-level vocabulary and words that are out of the vernacular (that means common language). A dictionary is required to learn the meaning of these words. I’m lazy, so I love e-books that allow a simple tap to open a dictionary entry for a word.

But even if you for your student does not take the time to look up the definition, the exposure to the word which will be a great foundation for future vocabulary mastery. One time hearing or reading a word is unlikely to make it a part of the child’s working vocabulary. So don’t worry if your student doesn’t remember. Your job is to provide lots of opportunities to hear rich words.

#2 Take in educational multimedia.

Most television programs have vocabulary at about a 4th-grade level. If kids are not exposed to programs outside of mainstream television, their vocabularies will not grow. Fortunately, there are excellent audios and videos we can play that utilize advanced vocabulary. Some of them are designed for children and define the terms used. There are more options then I could list here for you, but consider science, history, art, and other educational programs. Many of these will teach subject-specific vocabulary. Children will be most interested in mastering new words if the subject is of interest to him. These programs can be played during school breaks, during travel, or even as a reward for getting other work completed.

#3 Play games.

I made a comprehensive list of free vocabulary games and I have a list of board games, some of which are excellent at teaching vocabulary. These games go beyond the classic Scrabble, which is still an excellent option. When a child is motivated to win a game, she won’t even notice that she’s learning new words.

#4 Use vocabulary curriculum.

This is my least favorite way of expanding vocabulary. Here’s why. Most vocabulary curriculum provides no explanation as to why vocabulary matters. It is also typically dry to the point that kids dislike it and don’t remember what they’ve learned. The exercises are repetitive, like having a child write out the definition of a word, which frankly makes me cringe. And the most exciting part of this type of worksheet is kids are asked to use the new word in a sentence. There’s nothing wrong that, except if you have a reluctant handwriter, you’re going to have very unhappy kids who will be so focused on how much they hate the exercise that they are unlikely to remember the meanings of the words.

I do have some resources for teaching vocabulary that I like. I like vocabulary cartoons. The pictures and the humor are more likely to make the vocabulary memorable. I like English From the Roots Up flashcards as well. They teach word roots that can help your child decode the meaning of many more words. You can also sign your child up for an account at Vocabulary.com. As long as you make the lessons short and your child doesn’t hate it, she may learn a few new words in the process. You could also sign up for a word of the day via email and discuss it and add it to your white board or post them on the refrigerator. Everyone could take a turn using the word in a sentence. And finally, you can add a word of the day to your Amazon Alexa-connected device’s flash briefing. If you own another smart speaker, you may be able to find a similar program.

#5 Spend time with new people.

The fifth way to build a bigger vocabulary is to spend time with people who use new and interesting words. It’s not something that’s commonly done anymore, but invite a variety of people to your home for a meal. If you’re a classroom teacher, invite guest speakers. My kids were interested when we recently had one of the creators of our favorite hot-wing sauce over for dinner. Have your guest describe her work, and you will likely hear some new words. Even new words drawn from culture will expand your child’s vocabulary.

Having your child attend educational presentations is another way of enriching vocabulary. Encourage the student to ask relevant questions and the vocabulary will be salient (that means noticeable or important) for him.

Grammar Galaxy: Adventures in Language Arts

#6 Use Grammar Galaxy

And finally, I believe the best way to develop your elementary students’ vocabulary is to have them guard Grammar Galaxy. I include high-level vocabulary words in every lesson of Grammar Galaxy. What I mean by that is that the words are not graded. Some of the words I include in the first level, which is designed for first and second graders on up, are college-level words. I include the words to ensure that your students are being exposed to new words that will stretch them. I do not require students to write out the definitions of these words. Instead, I define the words with a single synonym in the text. No need to stop and grab a dictionary. Synonyms are much easier to remember then long, verbose (that means wordy) definitions.

I also ask students to use the new vocabulary words in a sentence verbally. When I used this approach with my kids, they loved it. They tried to come up with the funniest sentences they could to impress their siblings. Some parents of Grammar Guardians give a small reward for using the vocabulary words during the week. I love that.

Rather than repetitive, dry lessons on vocabulary, story is used to teach it. The stories are funny, making it more likely for your child to remember what they’ve learned. For example, the queen begins to use the wrong verbs because of what’s happening in Verb Village. Her friends don’t know why she is saying lay rather than lie, sit rather than set, and so on. She is chagrined (meaning embarrassed) by her incorrect vocabulary.

Rather than expecting a child to master the vocabulary after just a couple of exposures, vocabulary in Grammar Galaxy is a fun add-on to every lesson. Grammar Galaxy does specifically teach prefixes, suffixes, and root words, as these are most likely to help children learn new words quickly. I also love being a new person your child can talk to in order to increase vocabulary. I chat with kids who are guarding Grammar Galaxy at the Great Homeschool Conventions I attend. Bring them by to chat and I’ll have a gift for them.

Conclusion

In conclusion, vocabulary should not be a subject you neglect in your homeschool or classroom. It’s too important. However, you don’t need to run out and buy an expensive, time-consuming curriculum to teach it. Instead, choose to have your student do lots of reading; take in educational multimedia; play vocabulary games; talk with interesting people; try short, fun ways to add new vocabulary each week; and have your child become a guardian of Grammar Galaxy. Try a sample for free at GrammarGalaxyBooks.com/samples.