Raising Summer Readers Tip #29: Use summer as an opportunity to build your child’s vocabulary!


Our “Fact Book Word Wall” — our growing collection of new word that we learn when reading aloud informational nonfiction.

Vocabulary is one of the strongest predictors of reading comprehension and reading success, as has been shown consistently by years of research. Parents, even more than teachers and schools, have a tremendous impact (positive or negative) on their kids’ vocabulary development — through their everyday interactions, quality of talk, variety of experiences, and reading aloud. Of course, the kids who benefit most have rich language experiences all year long. Summer, however, with fewer structured activities and demands from school, provides a special window of opportunity for parents to take a more active role in building their kids’ vocabulary.

In an earlier post (Tip #13), I emphasized the importance of reading aloud for all literacy outcomes and for kids of all ages, especially during the summer when kids are at risk of experiencing summer reading loss. With respect to vocabulary in particular, reading aloud is hands-down the best way to build kids’ learning of new words, largely because printed text contains substantially richer and more diverse words than oral communication. See Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook: Seventh Edition for an excellent and super-accessible discussion of the importance of printed text for learning the rare words (the words beyond the 10,000 commonly spoken words) that predict reading success.  Also, because kids’ listening level exceeds their reading level for many years (some research shows they don’t begin to converge until 8th grade), reading aloud gives kids experience with more sophisticated text than they could learn on their own, including more complex vocabulary. Hence, reading aloud pushes forward vocabulary acquisition at a more rapid rate than can occur through language or independent reading). Even more powerful, reading aloud allows parents to help their kids focus on uncovering word meanings — which further accelerates new word learning and models an approach to new words that kids will hopefully take with them in their independent reading (rather than gloss over new words, which most kids do).

Here are some simple pointers for nurturing your kids’ vocabulary this summer:

While reading aloud with your kids…

  • Choose books with rich and varied vocabulary. Aim for most of your read alouds to have some new words. Minimize the use of “I can read”/beginning reading books for read-alouds!
  • Read aloud informational (nonfiction) books as well as stories. Informational books have specialized/technical vocabulary that boosts new word learning tremendously.
  • Pause when you encounter new words, and think aloud to show kids that unfamiliar words cause you to stop and think about whether you know their meanings.
  • Discuss the meaning of unknown words, including definitions and/or synonyms.
  • Use the new word in several different sentences in order to reinforce the meaning.
  • Work together with kids to problem-solve in order to figure out unknown words — using the clues in the text and in the word itself (e.g., prefixes).
  • Sometimes, look up unknown words in a dictionary (printed or online). Even if you know the meaning, it is important to model for your kids the importance of looking up word meaning while reading. It’s amazing how easy dictionary apps on mobile devices make this!
  • It can be fun to start a “book word list” or a “word wall”, with new words from books (and possibly definitions). If the list/word wall is visible, it is a constant reminder to kids to pay attention to new words and their meanings, and they are also easy to return to for further discussion (which improves word learning). We have done both in our family; the kids especially like watching the word wall grow!

While your child is reading independently…

  • Remind your child to pause when unknown words are encountered and to make an effort to uncover their meaning.
  • Make sure your child has easy access to a dictionary (or else the likelihood of them looking up words will be low!)
  • Make sure your child understands that asking others is a valuable method of uncovering word meanings as well.
  • Give your child a pad of sticky notes for marking words they need help with or new words and their definitions
  • Encourage your child to keep a “Summer Book of New Words”, in order to keep track of new words learned through reading and other experiences. The journal might contain a column for the word, its definition, and the source (i.e., book title). If stickies are used (above), they could simply be posted into the journal.

You can also build your child’s vocabulary by…

  • Make a deliberate effort to use some sophisticated vocabulary when talking to your kids. Try to use synonyms for common words, and try to use specific/technical rather than general words (e.g., If you’re eating pasta, refer to ‘fusili’ rather than ‘pasta’)
  • Varied experiences are one of the best opportunities for promoting new word learning, but they depend on your talking with your kids during the experience! Talk Talk Talk with your kids while you are out with them about what you are doing and seeing!
  • Start a “word-a-day” challenge. Check out this mom’s awesome blog post about her “word-a-day” cards!
  • Create a family book of new words, with all family members contributing new words (and definitions) that they encounter over the summer. Perhaps everyone shares the words they have added at a family meal.

If building your kids’ vocabulary hasn’t been on your mind this summer, try to incorporate a few of these options. It’s not too late for your kids to benefit if you start now! And of course, your kids will benefit most if you apply these strategies all year long!


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