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Oral Language: Expanding Your Child's Vocabulary

By: West Bloomfield Township Public Library
Talking to your child helps expand vocabulary, develop background knowledge, and inspire a curiosity about the world – all of which help with learning to read! Here are some simple activities you can do at home to get your child ready to read.

What reading experts say

Reading and talking with children plays an important role in developing their vocabulary. Typically, more words are used in written language than in spoken language. The more you read to children, the larger vocabulary they will develop. Research has shown children learn new words by:

  • Hearing a word over and over.
  • Hearing words spoken by the important people in their lives: Mom, Dad, siblings, grandparents.
  • Hearing words in a meaningful context – during conversation at dinner, in the car, while playing and while reading.

"Rephrase and extend your child's words, ask a clarifying question (tell me more about the man you saw), model more complex vocabulary or sentence structure (yes, I see the tall skyscraper you built with lots of windows), and ask open-ended questions," says Susan Hall and Louisa Moats of Straight Talk About Reading.

What good readers know

Good readers have a diverse vocabulary. They ask questions when they are unclear about what a word means, they use the context of a conversation or the happenings in a book to decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words and they use varied vocabulary in referring to familiar objects (this bird is big, but this elephant is gigantic).

What parents can do to help children 'grow up reading'

  1. Create or learn songs to expand your child's vocabulary. Use songs to describe your daily routines, periodically adding new verses that include new vocabulary words.
  2. Read stories such as The Three Bears or Three Billy Goats Gruff. Act out the stories using small, medium and large stuffed animals. Find other items in your home that are large, medium and small. Ask your child to classify the items according to size.
  3. Play "I Spy" with your child using words that describe an object's position. ("I spy something on the carpet, in front of the couch, next to the dog.") Expand this activity by playing "Simon Says" using directional words. ("Simon says put your hand above your head.")
  4. Keep a journal. Spend some time every night discussing your activities from the day. Introduce new vocabulary words by elaborating on the day's activities. Write down your child's impressions of the day.

Bonus activities

  1. "The Picky Puppet"
    Using a favorite puppet, explain that the puppet is picky – he only likes things that start with a certain letter. For example, "he only likes things that start with the letter T." Give your child some examples of things that begin with the letter. Then have your child look around the house (or around the neighborhood during a walk) and tell you things that begin with that letter. Introduce a new letter for the puppet to be picky about each day.
  2. When learning about writing letters of the alphabet, give your child many opportunities to write or trace letters in a variety of media. Use a sand table to trace letters, write letters in shaving cream or finger paint, make letters out of play dough and pipe cleaners.
  3. Create a "spinning wheel" using two cardboard circles of different sizes and a brass fastener. On the outer wheel write uppercase letters; on the inner wheel write lower case letters. Punch holes in the center of each circle and fasten them together. Have your child spin the wheel to practice matching upper and lower case letters.
  4. Make an alphabet caterpillar by writing each letter of the alphabet on a circle and having your child put the caterpillar together in alphabetical order. Attach two pipe cleaners to the "A" circle to make the caterpillar's head.

Great books to read

Alphabet books are useful because they:

  • Support oral language development
  • Help children learn letter sequence
  • Help children associate a sound with a letter
  • Can help children build vocabulary

(from Phonics from A to Z: a practical guide, Blevins, 1998)

The links below to Amazon.com are provided for your convenience. A portion of your purchase helps support Reading Rockets. Thank you!

From the West Bloomfield Township Public Library Counting the Days 'til Kindergarten Calendar, part of the Grow Up Reading™ (www.growupreading.org) early literacy initiative.

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