By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer
I recently got into a debate about learning languages with a fellow educator. As an ELL teacher, my friend had worked with students who spoke a huge variety of home languages — Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin, French, Russian, Hindi, and Bengali, just to name a few. Our conversation centered on the question of which language was most complex to learn, as a first or as a second language.
After dueling over the intricacies of sentence structure, pronunciation, and verb conjugation, we arrived at the topic of vocabulary development. Our debate morphed into curiosity, and we ended up researching the alphabet and the total count of words estimated in each of the top three languages spoken in the world today (according to Berlitz). Here’s what we learned:
- English is estimated to have over 1 million words made using 26 letters (though the average dictionary only contains around 400,000 defined entries.)
- Mandarin uses about 7,000 characters to create 106,230 words.
- In Hindi, writers have access to over 1.5 lakh (i.e. 150,000 words) using 48 letters, but only if they’re using the Devanāgarī alphabet — Brahmi is a bit different.
The sheer volume of words available for humans to learn in any language, let alone these three, utterly blew my mind. As I am an avid consumer of most types of reading material, podcasts, and word games, it also illustrated that my own vocabulary was still building in my native language of English. Just the other day, I discovered that I’ve been using the word “incorrigible” incorrectly for a while — oh, the irony!
Though we still have differing opinions about language complexity, my friend and I did agree on one thing: our students’ vocabulary development is essential for their future success in school and the world beyond.
Vocabulary development and its impact on literacy
Let’s take a closer look at the intricacies of vocabulary development and its impact on a student’s reading skills like decoding and other core abilities!
What do educators mean by “vocabulary”?
Put simply, when we educators talk about a student’s vocabulary, we are referring to the words they know and can use accurately to communicate. There are four types of vocabulary that children build as they grow:
- Listening vocabulary, which refers to the words a child needs to know to understand what they hear
- Speaking vocabulary, or the words a child uses when talking
- Reading vocabulary, also known as the words a child needs to know to understand what they are reading
- Writing vocabulary, which refers to the words a child uses in writing
Each plays an important role in vocabulary development overall. They also have positive effects in building early reading skills and more, too.
What’s the nature of vocabulary acquisition and growth?
Language is a foundation for literacy, so it’s not surprising that vocabulary development in children starts at the same time as their oral language development, beginning as early as 10 months of age. There are two types of language that children build in these early years. Expressive language refers to the use of words, sentences, gestures, and writing to convey meaning to others. Receptive language refers to understanding words and language around a child, though not necessarily using them.
Both expressive vocabulary and receptive vocabulary are important for children to communicate effectively. They also play an essential role in vocabulary development and other areas of literacy, such as phonetic skills, later in that child’s life. Individual differences in children’s early language skills can be affected by a number of factors, too, like home environment and socio-economic status. When combined, these can contribute to or reduce the risk of a vocabulary gap developing between kids by the time they reach age 2 (Attig & Weinert, 2020).
What’s most fascinating about vocabulary development in children is that it can happen at any time, anywhere, even without explicit instruction. In fact, most children expand their expressive vocabulary and receptive vocabulary indirectly through exposure to their surroundings, gleaning their meaning from context.
This method of learning has been studied by researchers for decades, helping educators understand why a language-rich environment matters for early vocabulary development in young children (Hansen & Broekhuizen, 2020). Educators and families both can make meaningful differences in individual children’s literacy when they help them build both expressive vocabulary and receptive vocabulary early on.
How do teachers teach vocabulary?
In addition to exposing children to a wide range of words in multiple ways, educators can — and should — also explicitly teach vocabulary to individual children to build their knowledge of words and expand their ability to communicate in multiple ways. More specifically, effective and explicit vocabulary instruction should “[bring] students’ attentional focus to words in ways that promote not just knowing word meanings, but also understanding how words work and how to utilize word knowledge effectively” (McKeown, 2019).
Here’s how one teacher describes her approach to vocabulary instruction in the classroom:
“My daily Language Arts classroom routine begins with silent independent reading (indirect). We continue on with the direct instruction of the day’s two new vocabulary words and then on to the literary analysis [of reading material] and/or writing tasks of the day… No matter what, vocabulary instruction is paramount.”Vocab Gal
Because of the nature of vocabulary acquisition, teachers have a huge variety of ways they can teach students new words and their meanings from context or more explicitly. These include, but are not limited to:
- Using semantic mapping, where words are visually displayed with connections linking to related words or concepts
- Repeatedly exposing students to words across multiple contexts, such as seeing them on a poster board in class, hearing them spoken by their teacher, and reading them in different texts
- Teaching students specific word analysis strategies that help students break apart a word into recognizable parts to help them practice saying it and understanding it in context
- Creating a visual reference for a word, like a picture or even a visual dictionary, to pair with print vocabulary and help students understand its meaning from context
For more methods driving vocabulary development in school, take a look at WeAreTeachers’ list of activities for kids across grades K-12.
How can teachers assess vocabulary growth? Do “vocabulary scores” exist?
Vocabulary growth and knowledge is highly nuanced, which makes any measure of vocabulary equality nuanced. In their article published with Reading Rockets, Katherine Stahl and Marco Bravo share that US educators often assess vocabulary development in American children “at the end of a unit using a multiple-choice task, a fill-in-the-blank task or matching task.” There are other generalized tools available to teachers as a measure of vocabulary, such as the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test or other standardized tests that might vary by state.
But as the authors clarify, these methods are not without challenges. For example, the end-of-unit measure of vocabulary knowledge above is “a shallow metric of possible word knowledge” as it tends to assess breadth — but not depth — of vocabulary in individual children.
In short, there are a number of tools available that may serve as a measure of vocabulary, but no single method is the way to assess this knowledge. What’s clear, though, is that becoming a strong, confident reader means much more than having specific vocabulary scores or other measures of word knowledge.
Continue reading Stahl and Bravo’s article to explore the nuances of vocabulary assessments further.
What impact does learning vocabulary have on reading?
A student’s development of vocabulary isn’t just about learning a new language, independent reading, or improving crossword puzzle skills — though it certainly helps! Vocabulary is a core factor that contributes to a child’s overall literacy and reading competency, both of which help children thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.
As the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education explains, “To learn to read, children must develop both fluent word reading and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). Language comprehension encompasses vocabulary and morphology, knowledge, syntax, and higher-level language skills.”
It’s worth noting that each of these factors of literacy come from a body of scientific literature known as the science of reading. Though commonly misunderstood as a specific curriculum or type of instruction, the science of reading really refers to what research tells us about reading development and things like the nature of vocabulary acquisition.
A review of educational reading research insights has shown that many factors that encompass the complexity of reading actually have interactive relationships with one another. In other words, reading itself can have a compounding effect on the level of vocabulary knowledge in individual children over time, just as a student’s development of vocabulary can impact their reading experience.
In their 2015 study, Duff, Tomblin, and Catts found meaningful differences in vocabulary growth between students, impacted by a student’s reading ability. A student’s rate of vocabulary growth after 4th grade was significantly related to that student’s word reading in the 4th grade. As the authors described it, “Strong readers [in 4th grade] experienced a higher rate of vocabulary growth than did average readers.”
This effect on vocabulary growth rates matters hugely for vocabulary development — especially for the 25 million American children who struggle with reading and English language learners who may need up to 14 exposures to a word and its meaning in order to fully learn it.
It’s essential to understand that vocabulary development isn’t just critical for toddlers or school-age children. Yes, little ones are especially good at absorbing new information about the world around them, sponging up things like words and their meanings. And yes, the number of words in a student’s vocabulary in kindergarten can affect the expansiveness of their 10th-grade vocabulary.
However, vocabulary development also continues well into adulthood. In their 2022 examination of longitudinal studies on adult vocabulary, Gitit Kavé found that in general vocabulary scores and knowledge increases across one’s life all the way up to and through their mid-60s. While there is much to be studied about the precise nature of vocabulary acquisition in adulthood, it’s clear that learning new words and gaining exposure to them benefits students long after they leave the classroom.
The role of families in building a strong vocabulary
And… vocabulary development in school can be positively impacted by vocabulary development at home, and vice versa!
Parents, caregivers, and guardians play an essential role in their children’s language development across all ages, from fundamentals like phonetic skills to more complex knowledge like academic vocabulary. Families also possess immense wealth of knowledge about that child’s use of language at home and out in the community. This information can be crucial for an educator to guide that student’s vocabulary growth. Further, for multilingual learners especially, effective family engagement strategies are especially powerful in helping them improve their knowledge of the English language.
When school staff employ a strengths-based approach to partnership, they unlock amazing support for student vocabulary development that complements formal reading instruction. If you’re familiar at all with ParentPowered and our ParentPowered curricula, our enthusiasm for getting families involved in vocabulary development shouldn’t be a surprise!
High-impact family engagement is at the heart of everything that we build. This emphasis on strong family-school partnerships stems from research long indicating the benefits that engaged families offer to school communities. Among these benefits are improved reading scores, increased attendance rates, and increased graduation rates — just to name a few.
In the end, families contribute greatly to student literacy, and especially vocabulary development. It takes the adults both at school and at home to create strong readers with expansive vocabularies.
Expanding vocabulary development at home, from birth to adolescence
Across all grade levels, families have the opportunity to positively influence students’ level of vocabulary knowledge. We’ve compiled a list of family activities geared towards building reading, writing, listening, and oral vocabulary with kids, from birth to adolescence. Share them with your community today, or continue exploring more examples of family engagement activities at home!
Infancy & early childhood
In the first months of a child’s life, they develop their earliest speech and language skills that will later support learning vocabulary as they get older. A variety of factors can influence this early learning and rates of vocabulary growth, for better or worse. In fact, longitudinal studies have shown that the effects of socio-economics are evident in children at just 18 months of age (Fernald, Marchman & Weisleder, 2013).
Insights like this underscore the essential role of families in vocabulary development — and the need for educators and community organizations to support all families equitably in that role. After all, equity in education is critical for student success at any age.
Here is a family-friendly and equitable activity from ParentPowered curricula to support infants with early language development:
- FACT: When you describe the things that you see and do, you’re helping your baby develop early vocabulary and language skills. Describe things early and often!
- TIP: As you prepare a meal, describe your actions. Say, “I’m stirring the soup. The spoon goes around and around in the bowl. Now I’m adding pepper!”
- GROWTH: Keep describing what you see and do. Try describing your baby’s movements during tummy time. Say, “You’re lifting your head to look at me. Hi baby!”
For more insights about early language and speech development, take a look at key milestones by age outlined by Stanford Children’s Health.
PreK & Kindergarten
As children approach their first day of formal schooling, their vocabulary development shifts into a higher gear. Children’s total vocabulary expands rapidly between ages 4 to 6, with students acquiring an average of 70 new words and their meanings per month!
Research also shows that children’s vocabulary during these years is closely connected with their development of comprehension skills later in elementary school, so it is essential for families to continue nurturing word recognition, usage, and exposure.
Share this activity from our ParentPowered programs with your PreK families to expand kids’ vocabularies and set them up for successful reading in the future:
- FACT: Words open up a world of learning! When children learn new words, it helps them communicate with others and learn all about the world around them.
- TIP: At bedtime, introduce words that name objects. Say a sweet goodnight to things in your child’s room: “Goodnight window, good night door knob.”
- GROWTH: Keep naming objects to prepare 4K! Add descriptive words as you say a silly good morning to things in your child’s room: “Good morning SHAGGY carpet!”
Did you know? ParentPowered has a series of family workshops for families and kids alike! These videos guide students to explore and practice critical academic and life skills, including learning new words. Share these and more clips from The Big Fancy Word Lady with your PreK and kindergarten families!
Students continue expanding their vocabularies throughout elementary school, combining this knowledge with greater maturity as they also develop their comprehension skills, fluency, and more abilities that contribute to reading.
While classroom activities often apply explicit approaches to build vocabulary, teachers also use subtle ways, such like reading out loud. As one elementary school teacher puts it, “The key to ‘real-life-like’ vocabulary instruction is not to force it…what’s more crucial to ongoing vocabulary development is modeling when and how to be inquisitive about words.”
Outside of the classroom, families can also foster students’ curiosity through exposure to new words, their meanings in context, and their use in language. Most recommendations emphasize the importance of creating a language-rich environment around their children, which research suggests boosts not only children’s vocabulary in kindergarten but also later in elementary school (Walker et al, 1994). But “language-rich” doesn’t just mean having more books or other resources around a student at home. Elementary school families can nurture vocabulary development without needing extra time, tools, or expertise.
Your upper elementary school families will love this ParentPowered activity geared towards helping 4th-grade students explore new words:
- FACT: Describing how something looks, tastes, or feels brings kids’ writing to life. After all, ice cream is good, but creamy and sweet ice cream is better!
- TIP: During dinner, take turns describing how food on the table feels or tastes. Try, “This bread is soft and fluffy.” Or, “This carrot is sweet and crunchy.”
- GROWTH: Keep describing things! Now put your child in charge of writing a grocery list. For every food, have them add a detail — apples become juicy apples!
For more family-friendly ways to support elementary school vocabulary growth, take a look at this list of activities from Upper Elementary Snapshots.
Middle & high school (aka adolescence)
Between the ages of 6 and 12, just before adolescence, an average student has grown their total vocabulary knowledge from about 20,000 words to over 50,000! That rate of word acquisition is the fastest in a student’s learning life thus far. But vocabulary development in school doesn’t stop here — and neither does a family’s role in building these skills.
Research indicates that ongoing growth of vocabulary is essential for middle school students’ literacy needs (Harmon, 2000), as larger vocabularies allow students to dive deeper into learning in other subject areas. But vocabulary development can be challenging for adolescents who already struggle with reading. A lack of word knowledge also disrupts both reading comprehension and fluency in reading, two critical literacy skills at any grade level.
It’s also important to recognize that high school and middle school family engagement look quite different from that of elementary school. Rather than take a direct approach to support student learning, families can make a greater impact in adolescents’ learning through indirect approaches like academic socialization and supporting social-emotional development.
This activity is one of our favorite ways to encourage adolescent family engagement and boost vocabulary and reading development in students at home:
- FACT: In middle school, a strong vocabulary supports learning in ALL subjects. Looking up new words and using them everywhere, boosts these key word skills.
- TIP: Keep a pad of paper by the TV. Challenge your child to write down 1 new word they hear on a show, movie, or game. Can they look it up after?
- GROWTH: Keep learning and using new words. Now invite your middle schooler to teach the family the new word. See if you can all use it at least once that day.
Many classroom-based activities can also be adapted to the home environment. Take a look at Professor William P. Bintz’ exploration of middle school vocabulary instruction, or explore these activities shared by teachers from the field. For both middle and high school activities, this guide to vocabulary development in secondary grades is a helpful starting point.
Expanded vocabulary unlocks expanded potential
“There’s a power in words. There’s a power in being able to explain and describe and articulate what you know and feel and believe about the world, and about yourself.”Tracy Chapman
A student’s words hold immense potential and influence in their learning journey. Developing and expanding their vocabulary knowledge becomes essential to empower each and every child to become a self-sufficient, compassionate, and collaborative adult in the world.
When educators and families come together with this mission in mind, they create a continuous and supportive learning community around a student that catalyzes their growth. In such an environment, students can navigate any challenge — whether it’s learning multiple languages, solving a crossword puzzle, or changing the world!