The achievement gap between at-risk youth and advantaged youth usually begins even before children arrive at school. It often starts with a child's vocabulary. We are only able to comprehend and discuss concepts and issues for which we know the associated vocabulary. So, it is essential for kids to learn lots of new words all the time.
One of the best ways to learn new vocabulary is through reading. Picture books contain a lexicon at a much higher level than what a child can read on his or her own. For example, the picture book In the Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming contains the text "waddle, wade geese parade" and "minnows scatter." A seven-year-old might not know exactly what minnows are or what waddle means, but she will be able to decipher their meanings from the images and the context. However, this deduction probably won't happen unless a discussion about the words is prompted by an adult.
Children usually skip over unknown words when reading, so when helping kids learn new vocabulary, take just a moment to point out a new word and then return to the flow of the story. Provide a short, kid-friendly definition and show how it relates to the picture (if possible). A short definition ensures the children understand the text and will hold their interest. Focus on words that are common in adult speech so the kids hear the words again. Hearing a new word one time won't make it stick, but repetition will. Encourage the children to name similar words or connect the new word to what they already know. For example, after reading about geese waddling in In the Small, Small Pond, ask the children what other animals waddle.
Show the kids how to use the pictures to their advantage while reading. This will go a long way in helping them when they have to read in later grades. Explain that looking at pictures is not cheating, but it's what they're there for.
For more strategies about improving kids' vocabulary while reading, check out Reading Rockets.
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