Building Vocabulary for Kids

October 14, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Posted in Reading with Kids | 2 Comments

This year I acquired a stepdaughter, who will be 15 next month.  She and my husband are both super-achievers in the math and science areas, but haven’t put as much focus into the liberal arts.  I thought it might be interesting to share my experiences with other parents (you know, real parents) as I try to remedy the situation.

She’s a reader.  Your kid probably is, too.  These Millennial kids cut their teeth on Harry Potter, and their tendency is to mob together and read the same books.  They don’t want to be left out, so they’ll take on thick books or long series without batting an eyelash.  We have to watch out, though, because the fact that they’re reading and talking about these enormous books does not necessarily mean they’re getting out of it what we think they are.  I found this out with Sweetie Junior, as we took turns reading out loud:  she doesn’t look up definitions for words she doesn’t know, and she’ll skip over anything that looks too hard to pronounce.  She is quite proud of her ability to learn words “from context,” and gave me a whole lesson on how to do it, yet she usually guesses wrong.  She’s bright and she’s an A student, so it would have been easy to assume she was reading at a higher comprehension level than she is.

Since she’s strong in math, I used the analogy that giving a word the wrong meaning is the same as using the wrong digit in a math problem.  For instance, for years I thought ‘approximately’ meant ‘exactly.’  This made sense.  I bought her a set of SAT vocabulary cards, and to my delight she’s been memorizing them assiduously.  The only problem is, they don’t come with a pronunciation guide of any kind!  Now we have to go through the cards with her and make sure she’s saying the words right.  (This probably sounds a little bleak to some of you, but this morning at 6:15 I found she had railroaded her dad into going over a few with her before school.  It’s not even homework).

When I was a kid, the rule was that you had to look up any word you didn’t know and read the definition to everyone.  It was a game.  I probably picked up as much high-flown vocabulary from conversation as I did from reading.  I’d like to assume this was working with my own kid, now that I’ve suddenly got one.  But this doesn’t work either.  SJ won’t speak up if she hears a word she doesn’t understand.  She usually will for a cultural reference; this morning it was ‘cakewalk’ and last night, alas, it was ‘school shooting.’  Your family might have scintillating conversation around the table every night, but it’s still important to stop every now and then when you catch yourself using a Big Word and make sure everyone knows what it means.  This sounds pedantic, but it’s not as bad as the embarrassment your poor kid will feel the first time a group of people calls her out for using a word incorrectly.  Like I felt once when I used ‘quid pro quo’ instead of ‘QED.’

Trends in education change.  Phonics worked for me in 1981, but I don’t think that’s how it was done in northern California 20 years later.  SJ has always been an A student.  She’s brought home papers with incompatible verb tenses, mixed singular and plural, missing words, and grammatical mistakes like “should of went” – and not a one had a red mark or a comment!  Do not depend on the schools to teach your kids rudimentary language skills.  Neither the grades nor the standardized test scores are going to point reliably to where your kid needs extra help.

Do we use the carrot or the stick?  What sort of incentive do we use to get our kids to improve their language skills?  I don’t even really ask those questions.  I’m an explainer.  Kids will do anything if they think it behooves them.  I explained that colleges look at SAT scores more than grades, because not all schools offer the same quality of education.  My husband and I showed her our own SAT scores, and then we all went online and took a vocab quiz and compared scores.  (It was, shall we say, easy to see which one of us took math skills more seriously and which the verbal).  SJ voiced her preference for learning from flash cards, so I bought her a box, and she was off!

If you want your kids to improve their vocabulary, they have to see that it’s worth their while.  Say you were caught in a hurricane, and your house and all your stuff blew away, and you almost drowned, and when you came out of the water you didn’t have any clothes or ID or your phone or anything.  How would people know you were a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?  Answer:  Your manners, your posture, and your mode of speaking.

The only thing left is to worry about what you will do when your children grow up with more refined speaking skills than you have!

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.