Words, words, words! The more words your child knows, the better reader he or she will become. The great news is that you don’t have to wait until your child is of reading age to start building the vocabulary they will need in order to be great readers. This is because there are four different kinds of vocabulary that we use in our lives: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Studies show that children with larger listening and speaking vocabularies experience greater comprehension, therefore success as readers than children with a more limited listening and speaking word bank. This is because a child can know the meanings of thousands of words without having to know what they look like or how to spell them. Once they know the meaning of a word or a concept, they can just attach that knowledge to the visual representations (the words) later on as they are exposed to them in reading and writing. This large listening/speaking word bank helps them be more efficient readers because they don’t have to spend time learning to read the word and the meaning, they just have to learn to attach a known meaning to a new word.

Building this important word bank is easier than you think and it started the day your child was born! To build your child’s listening and speaking vocabulary here are two very important things you can do:

  • Talk, talk, talk! Speak to your child as much as you can about everything you can. Even babies love to hear the sound of your voice, so just gab away about anything. With toddlers and older kids, you can make a conscious effort to explain things to your kids in detail and use a lot of descriptive words. Don’t be afraid to use big words! Many of us tend to water our conversations down with young kids because we think they won’t understand big words. They will learn them just like they learn the smaller words … you explain the meanings and use them repeatedly in your conversations. Remeber that you’re not expecting your child to read or write these words yet, just listen to them and maybe use them when they speak.
  • Read, read, read! Read aloud to your kids as much as they’ll stand it. This is important for a number of reasons, but it can be extremely helpful in developing your child’s listening/speaking vocabulary. Reading aloud to your child will give you opportunities to expose them to words we may not use everyday, as well as to the common ones we do use. Especially if you choose books that are of high interest to your child. Does your child love tigers? Don’t just read a children’s book that’s on their level to them – read them an article in a National Geographic magazine, a children’s encyclopedia, and/or a book meant for older children that has harder words in it – they don’t have to be able to read them, just you. Sure you may have to stop reading to discuss words and what certain concepts mean – but that’s just another opportunity to talk and learn more. It’s a win win situation!

As for your child’s reading and writing vocabulary, there are many wonderful activities that you can do to help them build these word banks – and we’re happy to share some with you in our Lesson Ideas section! But let’s first take a closer look at research findings and methods behind these activities so that you can maximize your ability to teach your child a vast vocabulary and also provide them with the tools to learn new words on their own. The remainder of this section will cover the following things you’ll need to know:

  • Types of Words
  • Which Words To Teach
  • Word Learning Strategies
  • Word Study

Types of Words

Now I’m not talking about different parts of speech here. I’d like to share with you something about words that we all know, but don’t really think about. It’s important to be aware of this though when teaching our children new vocabulary words because you want to make sure you spend your time wisely and choose words that will make the most difference in your child’s learning. These “types of words” relate back to what I just shared with you about listening/speaking/reading/writing vocabulary. Take a minute to think about the words in your vocabulary. Many people tend to think that words fall in either a “know” or “don’t know” category – but the truth is that words fall into many categories. Below is a chart showing the many categories that our children’s vocabulary may fall into.

words we know – by sight, meaning, and reading

words we’ve heard but don’t know the meaning of

words we’ve seen but don’t know the meaning of and/or haven’t heard of

words we’ve heard of and know the meaning of, but haven’t seen or know how to read

words we don’t know anything about

Since you spend the most time with your child, you’re more likely to be aware of what their vocabulary is like. And if you’re not sure, you can simply make a chart to keep track of words your child encounters during your lessons so that you will know which ones he/she needs to focus on and what aspects of the word they need to work on. Just use the categories above to make your chart and plug words in as you work with your child – they can help you! When he/she gets to a word they don’t know (whether you’re doing the reading or they are), ask them which category you should put the word in. This can be a great way to use your child’s knowledge base to drive your instruction, and it makes a handy tool for lesson planning.

Which Vocabulary Words Should I Teach?

Whether you decide to keep track of your child’s vocabulary knowledge or not, you may still wonder what vocabulary words you should choose from the stories or selections you’ll be reading with your child. If you are working with a structured curriculum, the vocabulary words may have already been chosen for you for each lesson. If you are creating your own curriculum, then you will be the one choosing the words to teach so you will want to choose the ones that will benefit your child the most. So how can you tell which ones are most useful? Glad you asked!

According to Isabel Beck, author and leading researcher of vocabulary instruction, there are 3 levels, or tiers of words that we typically teach. I will break down her findings and suggestions about these tiers for you here.

  • Tier 1 Words: These are words that are pretty easy to understand and are used a lot in everyday interaction. Your child has probably had these common words in their listening/speaking vocabulary for a while and therefore will be very easily transfered into their reading/writing vocabulary. Examples include: house, play, job, sad, hurt, begin, etc. Beck maintains that a reading teacher should not spend much time trying to “teach” these words because they are probably known concepts to your child. You need only give them opportunity to match their knowledge to the word. Sometimes words may seam like a good choice because they are big words and might seem hard to learn. Main point: if your child knows the meaning already, don’t spend too much time on it and don’t choose to highlight it as a vocabulary word for a selection.
  • Tier 2 Words: These are classified as words that we will need to be mature readers and that will help us expand our understanding of things that we may encounter on any given day. So in one sense they are common words and concepts, yet they make our vocabularies richer and help to improve our comprehension. These words are often times linked to previously known concepts as well – they just may be a fancier way of saying something we already know. Examples include (synonyms for the above tier 1 examples): dwelling, interact, performance, melancholy, injured, initiate, etc. Main point: Beck states that these are the words we should spend most of our time teaching because they help our children create a richer and more mature vocabulary!
  • Tier 3 Words: These are words that are very content specific and are not used on a daily basis. They may be very important to know so that a reader can understand specific material, yet they do not need to be mastered or internalized unless they are to be used in one’s daily vocabulary. Examples include: stalactites abscission, decacordon, monomer, Main point: The author by no means says that these words aren’t important or that we shouldn’t teach them, she just merely points out that they should only be taught if they are necessary in order to understand the selection you’re working on.

So when you’re going over a selection choosing or reviewing the given vocabulary, keep these tier words in mind. Carefully chosen words can really help to maximize your instructional time and make your child’s learning more meaningful!

Word Learning Strategies

While your child may learn tons of words from you just by hearing you speak and listening to you read, many words still have to be taught. There are literally thousands of good ideas out there for teaching your child vocabulary words. We have some too and you can check them out in our vocabulary section of Lesson Ideas! Yet it’s really important that you teach your child the strategies they need to learn words on their own. Dictionaries are nice (and necessary to use sometimes), but we definitely don’t carry them around in our back pockets and neither will our kids. So here are the easiest word learning strategies that you can teach your kids.

  • Context Clues: This is the most commonly used because it’s the easiest. Show your kids how to search for clues in the words or sentences surrounding the unknown word.

For example: Jenny felt apprehensive about moving to a new neighborhood where she didn’t know anyone. She was nervous about getting lost and not making any new friends.

You can go through and pick out words or phrases that give clues: “new neighborhood”, “didn’t know anyone”, “nervous”, and “lost” are all good because you can discuss how that would make them feel. You want to model this first a few times until your child knows what to do and then you can have them do the clue searching.

  • Word Structure: This strategy is useful when you can look at the parts of the word itself for clues. Of course, this will usually only work once you have taught your child about affixes and word origins (more on that below). Teach your child to look at word parts for any clues to the meaning of the unknown word.

For example: incomprehensible

prefix: in = not, base: comprehend = understand, suffix: ible = able to

  • Apposition: This is a fancy word for saying that the definition is included in the sentence itself. Many content area subjects, such as science and history, will do this in their selections. Although this one seems like a no-brainer to us adults, kids tend to overlook them. You just have to show your child that they exist and how to spot them. The definition of the word is usually set apart from the rest of the sentence by commas. For example:

The bees swarmed, or crowded around, the hive.

These are three really easy strategies you can teach your kids to help them learn words on their own. Not only will it help them save time by looking up words they don’t know in a dictionary, but it also helps them develop their decoding skills.

Word Study

The English language has many predictable spelling patterns, some irregular words and exceptions, and quite a few words that come from different languages. These factors tend to make learning to read and write our language difficult for many kids. Luckily, we can teach many of these patterns, irregularities, and word origins to our kids so that they’ll pose less of a problem for them when they read. That’s what Word Study is all about. Here is a list of the type of lessons that are covered in our Word Study section. You can find specific lessons with instructions in our Word Study section of Lesson Ideas – they’ll be broken down by grade level.

  • Antonyms: opposite or ear opposite meanings (off/on)
  • Synonyms: similar meanings (nice/kind)
  • Base Word Families: words that share the same base word (
  • Prefixes: letter(s) attached to the front of a base word that changes its meaning (
  • Suffixes: letter(s) attached to the end of a base word that changes its meaning (selfish)
  • Homographs: words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and sounds, for instance “bow”
  • homophones: words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings such as “read” and “red”
  • Homonyms: words that are spelled the same and sound the same but have different meanings such as “bank”
  • Word derivations (word origins/languages they came from): words that come from other languages but become part of the English language. An example is
  • Compound words: words made up of two or more other words (“street car”)
  • Analogies: pairs of words that share a relationship. For example “finger is to hand as toe is to foot

For specific lesson activities, check out the Vocabulary section of our Lesson Ideas.