Why is Vocabulary Important in Learning to Read?

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Teacher to Parent education podcast in India

What is vocabulary?

Vocabulary stands for the words a reader knows, understands, and uses. If you’ve ever noticed, the dictionary gives the word’s meaning and examples with correct usage of the word. So our knowledge of a word is complete only when we know how to use it correctly in our expressions.

Is vocabulary something that we should be concerned about only when children begin to read?

Do children not have anything to do with words before they begin to read? Actually, they use words to talk, and they also use words to think. If you listen to children talk, you’ll find that the child with more words shares many details. These children can express themselves very clearly, and it takes them very little time to grasp new information. Why is that? Because they have an extensive bank of words, these children, when they come across a new word, can connect it to what they already know. Connecting new information to what they already know is fundamental to learning.

Just today, I watched a seven-year-old look at some instructions on a toy package. He said, “It says these are arboreal animals; okay, put them on the tree then.” Now, how often do we use the word arboreal in our conversations? How did this child get to know this? It’s because someone else exposed him to the word along with its meaning, either while reading or in play. That’s how he acquired the word arboreal and what it means. Again, vocabulary doesn’t enter the picture only when children learn to read.

Children first learn new words by listening to others speak or read to them. They develop a listening vocabulary. Subsequently, children learn to say those words and build their speaking/oral vocabulary. As they learn to read, children learn new vocabulary words to understand what they read. This is their reading vocabulary. And, of course, you know that writing develops alongside reading. The words they use in their writing are part of their writing vocabulary.  When children learn to read, they transfer the new words they learn to their speaking vocabulary.

What happens when children learn to read? They suddenly acquire a large number of words in their word bank. Why is that? That’s because books expose them to new words that we don’t use in our everyday conversations.

Why is your child’s vocabulary essential in learning to read?

Vocabulary is essential to understand what you read. When children first learn to read, they connect the printed word to words they already know in the spoken language. Remember we talked about the listening vocabulary, the oral or speaking vocabulary, and then the reading vocabulary? So the ‘reading vocabulary words,’ they understand those by connecting them to what they already know in their spoken language. For instance, the four or five-year-old who sees the word ‘ball’ may sound it out slowly but knows what it means because he has heard and spoken the word ‘ball’ many times before this. Right from infancy, he’s heard a parent or somebody say, “Here, catch the ball; throw the ball,” right? As he already has the word in his listening and speaking vocabulary, he understands the sentence he reads is about the ball.

But then say you are reading a book about the rainforest, and you come across the word canopy. Your child probably hasn’t heard or used this word in his everyday conversations. So when you come across the term ‘canopy,’ he won’t know what the text says about the canopy layer of the rainforest. Once you explain the word’s meaning, point to the canopy in the illustration and the animals in that layer, he has banked the word in his listening and speaking vocabulary. Next, when he reaches for the book on his own and comes across the word ‘canopy,’ he knows exactly what he’s reading about!

To develop good reading skills, children should have a large speaking vocabulary. They can use their prior knowledge to understand the printed word. On the other hand, without knowing the meanings of words, a reader cannot understand what the text conveys.

Research says that Children with an extensive vocabulary use their word knowledge to think, understand, express, and create as they read, write, and communicate.

That means a child who uses words such as “huge, giant, gigantic, humongous, enormous, vast, massive, mammoth, large, great, and immense” all to express the size ‘big,’ when he comes across these words, it may take him a little bit of time to decode them but will understand what the words mean in the context of the text. On the contrary, a child who doesn’t know that all these words indicate ‘big’ will not understand what the text says.  

How do children learn vocabulary?

Children learn most of the basic vocabulary indirectly, i. e., through their interactions with others—like talking to their family members, friends, and other adults, or by reading books, and having books read to them. Academic language is not learned the same way. We don’t use a lot of academic words in our everyday social interactions. How often do we talk about the states of matter in our everyday conversations? Do we say, ‘solid this, liquid that?’ No. Children must learn academic vocabulary through direct instruction.

Why is Vocabulary Important in Learning to Read?

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