Teaching vocabulary to children, part 2

 

Two ways of learning vocabulary

        Most vocabulary is learned indirectly. That is, children learn words in three principle ways:

  • They talk every day. When they converse with people, they hear words used repeatedly. Adults who enjoy words and who relish using new and fascinating ones are the people who can best teach children an extensive oral language.
     
  • They are the audience of adults who read to them. This is one of the reasons why you have heard so frequently that it is important for parents to read to their children daily. It is through reading and discussions of these books that children learn new words and incorporate them into their own vocabulary.
     
  •  They read independently. When children read on their own, they discover new words. It is through this process that they build a more extensive vocabulary.

        While most vocabulary is learned indirectly, as explained above, there are also many words that need to be learned via direct instruction. This process refers to children’s being taught (a) specific words as well as (b) strategies for learning new words.

        In some cases, such as in the content areas of science and social studies, it may be necessary to precede the reading with the teaching of certain words. In this way, when a child encounters such a word as "photosynthesis," she knows that it refers to a process that is happening in a plant, and she can focus her attention on the concept being taught rather than puzzling over the meaning of a word she doesn’t understand.

        It is also helpful to teach children strategies for learning new words. Some of these strategies include:

  • proper use of dictionaries to look up words;
     
  • figuring out what a word means by its context in the sentence;
     
  • examining the meanings of word parts -- prefixes, roots, and suffixes -- and relating those parts to known words so that they can figure out what the new word means. Once a child learns that "re-" at the beginning of a word means "again," he has a valuable piece of information that he can apply to many words he encounters with this prefix.
  

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