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Developing A Voracious Vocabulary

By: Upper School Director Gail Clark

November 14, 2018

While recently conversing with a third grade child at lunch, he shared with me his excitement about the “numerous” houses he would visit on Halloween. I was struck immediately with his ease of using the word “numerous.” Clearly, he had a firm understanding of the word, which he spoke so fluently! It was obvious to me that he is well on his way to developing a strong vocabulary.

Rossman teachers explicitly weave vocabulary into their daily instruction, creating a seamless transition from learning words orally at a young age to acquiring the tools to learn from the written text. While walking past the gymnasium one day recently, I heard the teachers discussing the word “dominant” with our Senior Kindergarten students in relation to which hand they should use to throw the ball. In Upper School language arts, teachers challenge students to use detailed vocabulary in their writing to show precision and specificity — such as using “soar” instead of “fly” — or show shades of meaning between words — such as “large, huge, gigantic, gargantuan.” New vocabulary permeates all classes as students experience new words and connect words to prior knowledge.

The Impact of a Rich Vocabulary

A rich vocabulary influences stronger comprehension, written expression, intelligence, content area knowledge, and reasoning, which have a direct effect on formal testing, understanding others, and future jobs. Dr. Elfrieda Hiebert and P. David Pearson expressed in their article “Generative Vocabulary Instruction” that:

“Knowledge is dependent upon expanding one’s ability to understand, and understanding is contingent upon vocabulary.”

A richer vocabulary does not just mean we know more words, but we have a deeper understanding and an exact way of talking about the world. We know that parents, who talk incessantly to their babies and toddlers, help them to learn to improve communicating their needs. Schools eventually take over the continuous building of vocabulary understanding and help students’ word knowledge to grow. 

Tier One Words

It is important to understand the development of vocabulary and how it is on a continuous spectrum at each age. By the end of Kindergarten, children have stored many words in their long-term memory, mostly learned by the give and take of oral language experiences. Linguists call these “Tier One words.” Children continue to develop vocabulary by using what they already know to construct refined meanings for these new words. For example, children first know the word “flower” through pictures, multiple experiences and exposures. Children then build on their notions of “flower” by learning daisy, buttercup, rose and tulip, and eventually develop even finer distinctions in vocabulary use as they learn the specific parts of the flower and their function. Slowly, the new words they are hearing shift to vocabulary in books they are beginning to read.

Tier Three Words

In second and third grade, oral language remains the primary source of new words. However, as children gain a higher level of reading, teachers progressively help their children transition from learning words orally to learning words from written texts. They begin to guide students in learning strategies of how to understand new words in the context of their reading. Learning root words along with prefixes, suffixes and compound words deepen their growth by providing more word attack strategies. As children’s understanding of how words are put together increases, their vocabulary expands.

Often, words are acquired through the study of content and topics they are reading in class. Linguists call these “Tier Three words” or content specific words. For example, our first grade students studied the life of bats. They learned words such as “nocturnal” and “brood,” which they used in their writing. Children’s vocabulary expands as they explore various topics, not only through discussion, but also through their own reading. Kamil and Hiebert, in their article called “Teaching and Learning of Vocabulary,” state:

“An extensive vocabulary is the bridge between the word-level processes of phonics and the cognitive processes of comprehension.”

Tier Two Words

By the fourth through sixth grades, students use mostly print and discussion as sources of learning new words. At this age, books have a higher density of new words than their conversations. Direct instruction and incidental vocabulary learning are both important. Major vocabulary learning occurs in content-areas when words are applied to different subjects in different contexts, deepening student understanding of the words. These are “Tier Two words” that are critical to reading comprehension. An example is when our fifth grade students explored the word “perspective” after studying it in art class. While on a field trip into the city, their assignment was to photograph structures from various angles, studying relationships between objects using different perspectives. At the same time, language arts teachers used the word “perspective” more abstractly as it relates to a character’s differing point of view. Science classes discussed “perspective” after groups tried to make the most efficient water-filtering systems. A conversation then revolved around each group’s perspective after seeing their results. Complex words require multiple encounters but also in a variety of contexts. Building strong connections between words through enriching experiences develops a more robust vocabulary.

The Science of Words

Students at this age are also learning meta-linguistic awareness, or the science or structure of words. Their study of word parts in lower grades sets the stage for more formal instruction of Latin or Greek roots, prefixes, or suffixes, which our students learn in Spanish class and further explore in all classrooms, often in connection with the Wordly Wise program or words extrapolated from their literature books.

The Power of a Home-School Partnership

Imagine the impact on vocabulary growth if both home and school work together in order to help children learn word meaning through both definitional and contextual information. In other words, internalizing words requires more than memorizing weekly words for a test. It is also helping them synthesize new words, relating them to personal experiences, using them in different contextual ways, as well as repetition in normal conversations. My husband used to say to our children every morning as they drove up to school, “It’s time to disembark.”  Or, he would say at times, “The sky is looking rather ominous, I wonder if you will have recess today?”  With context meaningful to them, they began using the words. Paynter, Bodrova and Doty explain in the book For The Love of Words:

One of the consistent findings of educational research is that having a small vocabulary portends poor school performance and, conversely, that having a large vocabulary is associated with school success.”

Our students are exposed to many experiences both at school and with their families on which to build strong vocabularies. Parents can support teachers by using words students are studying at school and helping them to embrace new words by repeating them often and in different contexts. 

Tips for Parents

Below are some ideas to weave strong vocabulary understanding into your child’s daily life:

  1. Read to your child at any age, making sure the content is above their reading level and rich with vocabulary (a picture book, novel, newspaper article, etc.).
  2. Discuss words they are studying, relating the meaning to something they know. For example, if your child is studying the word “inspire,” let them know what inspires you, then have conversations about what inspires them. It helps children to assimilate the meaning if they make up their own examples.
  3. Create visual representations of words that seem difficult or act them out. It could bring humor in learning the word!
  4. Create a mental image that is highly personal. For example, “cur” means an aggressive dog. A mental image may be a dog growling.
  5. Put Wordly Wise words on your refrigerator and challenge members of your family to use a few in their conversation during the week.
  6. Bring a list of Wordly Wise words in the car with you, challenging each other to find ways to use the words in the outdoor setting. If on the way to sports practice, what words can you use that relate to their game?
  7. Discuss related words that they know. For example, “debris” relates to “trash or garbage” yet has a slightly different meaning. Debris results after some sort of accident, where as garbage refers to something organic left over.
  8. Challenge each other to name as may words as you can, beginning with a root word. For example, “construct, construction, destruct, instruct” from the root “struct,” meaning to build or form.
  9. Relate the word to an emotion/feeling if possible. For example, “garment” – This scratchy garment makes me itch! 

Rich discussions do occur from “playing with words,” whether on the way to school, driving to a lesson or sports practice, at the dinner table, or at bedtime. Paynter, Bodrova and Doty state:

“Multiple encounters with words but in a variety of contexts help children to understand the nuances of the word and build strong networks of related vocabulary.” 

Let’s work together!



For the Love of Words by D. Paynter, E. Bodrova, and K. Doty, 

Vocabulary Development by S. Stahl

“Generative Vocabulary Instruction” by Elfrieda H. Hiebert / P. David Pearson

“New Perspectives in Learning Vocabulary” by Elfrieda H. Hiebert 

“Teaching and Learning of Vocabulary” by Kamil and Hiebert

Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here.

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