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Vocabulary helps reading readiness

Published on: May 01, 2004

of us hope our children will enter kindergarten ready to learn to read.
With schools placing increased emphasis upon testing and academic
proficiency, sharpening those literacy skills has become more important
than ever.

That's why educators and
researchers are looking for ways to jump-start reading readiness. These
days, the focus is on early and ample vocabulary exposure.

"It is much easier for children to learn to read if they have heard the
words before," says Billie Young, manager of child development programs
for the City of Seattle.

Language children hear is "receptive;" language children speak is
"expressive," she explains. "The more parents talk to kids, the more
words they will have in their receptive ability."

When should parents begin infusing their children with a rich
vocabulary? From day one, says Bridgett Chandler, vice president and
chief programs officer at Talaris Research Institute in Seattle. "Kids
absorb language long before they speak," she says.

Children make "maps" and patterns of sounds they hear over and over,
says Chandler. "By the time they're a year old, if they don't hear
certain sounds, they won't be able to recognize them later."

Parents can facilitate the language process in their infant's early
months by holding their baby close, exaggerating sounds, slowing their
language down and pitching their voices higher, Chandler notes. "In
every culture, that's the way adults change their speech for a very
young child."

According to the Puget Sound Early Literary Outreach Project,
(http://earlyliteracy. infants who demonstrate and master
the building blocks of speech at 6 months develop more complex language
skills by ages 2 and 3, and improve their reading abilities at 4 and 5.

"Research has demonstrated that the size of a child's vocabulary upon
entering school has a direct impact on his long term success as a
student," says Mary Seaton, project manager for the Outreach Project.

In fact, vocabulary and oral language is a better predictor of reading
success than IQ, according to Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, a speech and
language pathologist who is special programs director for the Bremerton
School District. "It is all built on background knowledge," she says.

Studies show that children from low socioeconomic environments begin
kindergarten knowing far fewer words than children from middle class
backgrounds, says Sullivan-Dudzic. "In a low-income home, the
utterances are shorter, less frequent, with fewer adjectives and
descriptive words--and there is less higher level questioning," she
says. "Many of those parents are stressed out about paying the rent.
How will they read to their child?"

Building vocabulary

Parents can help their children build strong vocabularies by
sharing their own excitement about words. Forget the flash cards, says
Young. "Play word games and use rhyme and alliteration. If a child asks
what something means, explain it--or look it up together."

And read, read, read. But don't just recite words on a page, experts
advise. Instead, read interactively. "Ask the child questions, wait,
and respond by adding a little more information," says Sullivan-Dudzic.
"Compare and contrast what's in the book. Say, 'This is a race car and
that's a tractor. How are they different?'"

With this reading technique--educators call it "dialogic reading"--the
adult becomes the questioner and the audience for the child. Rather
than simply listening, the child becomes actively involved in the

"Let your child have as much control as possible," says Mark Sabol,
coordinator for Even Start, a federally funded family literacy program.
"Let him turn the page or go back to another page. Have conversations
about what you're reading."

Those conversations are called the PEER sequence, as in Prompting the
child ("what do you see?"); Evaluating the response ("that's right,
it's a cow"); Expanding upon what the child says ("and a cow lives on a
farm and says moo"); and Repeating the prompt to make sure the child
has learned the information.

Make those reading and rhyming sessions fun, educators advise. Be
careful not to pressure or overwhelm your child. "The single most
important role adults can play in the future success of the children in
their life is in helping to make talking and reading together a joyful
experience," says Seaton.™

Help your child increase his or her vocabulary.

From the Talaris Research Institute Web site,

  • Talk to your child often. Point out the cats, balls, and cookies in her
    life. Talk about what you're doing throughout the day. Follow her lead
    and describe the things she points to. Even if she doesn't answer right
    away, she's still listening and learning.
  • As children learn new words, they may not get them quite "right" at
    first. Don't feel like you need to correct them right away. Help them.
  • Help build a child's vocabulary by adding details to the objects and
    events of the day. For example, if the child says "ball" you could add,
    "Yes, that's right, it's a ball. It's a red ball that bounces." Don't
    be afraid to use a rich vocabulary when you talk about things.
  • Tired of talking? Try reading. While exposing your baby to language
    outside your own day-to-day vocabulary doesn't guarantee she'll learn
    new words, it may help. And it can be a fun way to be close to your
  • Remember that children recognize and understand many more words than they can say.
  • Don't be afraid to use "parentese," that singsong, higher pitched way of talking to young children.

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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