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Why Focus on Vocabulary Development?

By Maureen Penko

Have you seen the commercial where the pool plug has been pulled and all are-BACK to School? That is just how quickly we shift into the new ROUTINE.

It is amazing, how quickly the sunlight fades and we find ourselves filling up the calendar with meet the teacher night, in-service days, extracurricular activities and the driving schedule. Somehow the word HECTIC comes to mind.

So, let me explain how vocabulary development influences a child's performance in school. Vocabulary is the basis for learning language and is very important in the development of speech and language skills, reading, writing and definitely spelling skills. Vocabulary strongly relates to reading comprehension, intelligence, and general ability. As children learn to read, they must learn to sound-out print, but they also must have a vocabulary base in order to make sense of what they read.

Vocabulary development is a process by which people acquire words. Throughout their school years, children continue to build their vocabulary. In particular, children begin to learn abstract words. Beginning around age 3-5, word learning takes place both in conversation and through reading. Word learning and meaning often involves experiential context, builds on prior knowledge, and this knowledge is key in social exchanges.

Vocabulary development during the school years builds upon what the child already knows, and the child uses this knowledge to broaden his or her vocabulary. Once children have gained a developmental level of vocabulary knowledge, new words are learned through explanations using familiar, or "old" words.

Exposure to conversations and participating in conversation with others helps school-age children develop vocabulary. This is why learning words through social media only is not beneficial. A child has to experience the words by using them and being in the situations in which they are used.

Vocabulary opens the mind to rich sentence building, paragraph development and conversation exchange initially in oral language and then written language. Often, children struggle with how to describe their experience because they don't have a bank of vocabulary. Imagination is developed and supported when the mind can imagine the words. Most importantly, articulation skills and spelling skills go hand in hand when a child sees a word in many contexts. For example, the word two can be spelt and mean different things such as TWO of my friends went home, I had TOO many cars in my toy bin, or let's go TO the store. Knowing that words can have more than one meaning involves explaining and demonstrating the meaning to children is referred to as use in context.

So, let's think about how to build the vocabulary. Books and personal experiences are the most powerful sources of vocabulary development.

Play games which allow sound, letter and vocabulary development to take place. What sound do I hear? how do I say it? and what does it look like? Knowing that many words can begin with the same letter is understanding a sound process known as Alliteration. This process is an important part of literacy and writing development. Children can have fun finding pictures or words that start with the same sound. Playing a game of finding a word that begins with the same sound in a flyer, book, or thinking of one are strategies that help establish pronunciation and vocabulary development. Playing junior scrabble, Banana grams, Mad Libs, and SLAPZI are some of the older vocabulary development activities.

I recommend parents read and explain words by creating a scrapbook of YUMMY words, SERIOUS words, funny words and feeling, and CRRRrazy words. The categories are endless. Going with your child to library time at the Winnipeg Public libraries or book stores are a gold mine of sources for word exposure.

The understanding of vocabulary dictates the use of the words. Explaining, demonstrating the word and referring to it in situations builds vocabulary. Understanding the meaning of words also builds confidence in using varied vocabulary.

Research indicates that vocabulary grows to be about 900-1,000 words by the time a child is 3 years old. A 6-year-old child typically has a 2,600-word expressive vocabulary and a comprehension vocabulary of 24,000 words and by the time a child is 12 years old, he/she will understand about 50,000 words.

Enjoy the start of school and all the vocabulary learning. It's an exciting year ahead!

As always, I remind parents if you are concerned about your child's speech, language and social communication abilities, don't wait even if your child has been attending school. Seek help now.

Maureen Penko
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