Tips To Improve Vocabulary


You may wonder why parents have to work on their child’s vocabulary at home.  After all, your child has no trouble talking! Doesn’t vocabulary develop with time as the child goes to school?

That’s a good question! Let’s take a closer look.

Tips To Improve Vocabulary

When young children start talking, what do they say?

They communicate their needs and wants, express their feelings, and comment on the environment around them. When they start school, they hear academic vocabulary, i.e., the words used to teach content. In LKG, UKG, and even class 1,  academic vocabulary is all about what they already know—the color of their favorite dress, their pet’s food, or the flower that grows in their garden.

Over time, the purpose of children’s communication changes. They don’t stop at commenting or asking to meet their needs. They learn to use the words they already know to understand new words and concepts.

The more words kids know, the more they can comprehend or understand. Children express themselves in greater detail, be it in their speech or writing when they know more words. Has your child ever struggled to write the answer in his own words?  A child with limited vocabulary finds it challenging to understand the topic and explain it in his own words.

Why do some children have a richer vocabulary than others?

That difference begins before they start school—because of their experiences at home. If parents develop their children’s vocabulary skills from a young age, they start formal schooling with a strong foundation in word knowledge. Researchers at Ohio State University have found that children who are read five books per day before they start school have heard a million more words than those who aren’t read to regularly.

Mind you, most Indian students begin as English language learners, and they enter school with a much smaller English vocabulary than native English speakers.

Now we Indian parents, we are highly motivated to prepare our children for school. This preparation usually takes the form of classes or camps which focus on specific academic vocabulary on specific academic skills like (phonics, math). But there are several things you can do at home to give your child the advantage that doesn’t involve camps or tuition classes.

1. Speak to your child in your mother tongue. That’s right, in your mother tongue! A critical element of learning a second language is to have a strong vocabulary in the first language. If children know more words in their mother tongue, they have a more comprehensive ‘word bank’ to link new English words they learn.

A large percentage of parents feel self-conscious because they don’t read or speak English very well. Not knowing English doesn’t have to stop you from being able to help your child learn the language. Parents can provide a solid foundation in their mother tongue, which will foster their children’s English language skills.  If they want to, they can use the various search engines on the internet to connect the English word to the correct word in their mother tongue.

2. Make your home “language rich.” That doesn’t mean that you keep talking to your child. It is how you talk to your child that is important here. Encourage them to speak up and share their experiences with you. When they have questions, give factual descriptive answers. Use new vocabulary words throughout the day and in many contexts. Meaningful repetition establishes the word in your child’s vocabulary. The keyword here is ‘meaningful’ because, let’s face it! Our most favorite word-building activity is ‘write the words ten times!’ But that will not teach children to use the words meaningfully, will it?

3. Give children a wide range of experiences to develop their background knowledge. I want to share a personal story here. We adopted our daughters when they were 11, 8, and 5. And then we took them to the beach for the first time; the oldest and the youngest were terrified! They had never been to a beach before. After trying to catch the wave for the first time, the oldest refused to go in.

Three years later, she read a book where some action happens on the beach with large waves. She came up to me and said, “Mom, I had read about the waves being big and powerful, but at that time, I didn’t really get it. Now when I read this story, I know exactly how those kids felt. It reminds me of the first time I saw those huge waves and how terrified I was. I can understand why the characters in the book act the way they do!”

You see, children can read many words without fully understanding what they read. As they go to higher classes, though, they will struggle to keep up with the academics if they can’t understand all the words. When they experience different aspects of the environment, children learn concepts and attach feelings to those experiences. Their background knowledge helps them connect new information to something they know or feel.

4. Tell stories at home. India has a rich tradition of storytelling. You can introduce a variety of words to describe the events in the tales to bring them alive.

5. Read to your child. How many new words do you introduce in your everyday conversation, even if you are fluent in English? Now consider the number of new vocabulary words your child will come across in a book. SO many more, right? We tend to pick stories to read to our children. You know what? Informational or nonfiction books introduce children to content and academic vocabulary! Nonfiction books should be a significant part of your reading collection. Whenever you come across a new word, explain the meaning using synonyms, i.e., other words with similar meaning) rather than omitting or rephrasing the entire sentence.

6. Encourage your child to read independently. Does your child read books other than school textbooks? It may seem like a no-brainer, but I ask this because in many of my camps, when I ask kids what they read over the weekend, they answer, “Miss, my science book” or “My social studies textbook, miss!” They also tell me that their parents don’t want them to waste time reading! Reading storybooks gives your child much-needed vocabulary and many, many other skills. I’ll do a separate podcast on that one later. Do encourage your child to read books. If you can’t afford too many books on your own, get books from lending libraries or school libraries.

7. Listen to podcasts geared towards children. Many of these are expose them to topics on science, history, culture, and stories. Children will hear a wide range of words through these podcasts.

8. Encourage your child to write—letters to family, personal messages in greeting cards, short stories describing their activities, critique a movie they watched. Writing and reading go together. When children write, they use words meaningfully. And that means they can internalize it better. Let them share everyday occurrences that are meaningful to them, as they will have lots to say.

9. Model how to refer to the context to understand new words. When children come across an unfamiliar word, we ask them to pick up the dictionary. Yes, children must learn to use the dictionary, but there are other ways to derive meaning. Teach your child to refer to the context and picture clues to find the meaning of the word. When using the dictionary, make sure your child finds a kid-friendly definition. Otherwise, they learn to regurgitate the terms used without really understanding the meaning or how to use them on their own.  

10. Children love watching television shows. Make TV time an opportunity to learn vocabulary. Sit with your child and watch shows on science or travel. Ask questions about some of the content words used in the show. Relate it to real-life situations to support their comprehension. I have a word of caution-don’t interrupt the show too much. If your kids are like mine, they’re going to be mad at you! And they aren’t going to understand too much of the content!

Click here to learn more:

How to teach vocabulary words

Click here for other episodes in this series:

The Five Elements of Learning to Read

Phonemic Awareness before Phonics

That Magical Skill Called Phonics

How Does Fluency Help Comprehension

Fostering Fluency at Home

Why is Vocabulary Important in Learning to Read?

Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension at Home

Tips To Improve Vocabulary

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