Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

by Josiah Brown

Learning new words is vital to your child’s success in school and life. A wide vocabulary will help your child understand written text more easily, not to mention communicate more fluently when they speak and write.

Your child will develop a lifelong habit of adopting new vocabulary words easily if they learn how to do it at a young age. Start by teaching them new words during your read-aloud sessions and story times.

Rather than making your child memorize new words and their definitions, though, focus on explicit vocabulary instruction—explaining what words mean and how to use them. Using this method, your child will retain new information more easily, and will also be able to incorporate newly-learned words in their speech more quickly. 

How to Teach Your Child New Words

Just as rote memorization isn’t the best way for your child to learn how to spell, unthinking repetition does a poor job of helping children learn new words.

According to researchers, children learn best from explicit instruction that combines easy-to-understand definitions, fun vocabulary activities, and continuous exposure. 

The vocabulary teaching method outlined below will help your child understand how words are used in real-life situations, as well as learn that words can have different meanings depending on how they’re used. 

Teach Vocabulary in Context

Exposing your child more frequently to targeted vocabulary words increases the likelihood that they’ll understand and remember the new words, as well as use them more often, according to research compiled by the National Reading Technical Assistance Center.

The same research also concluded that teaching unfamiliar words directly during read-alouds enhanced children’s understanding of word meanings. “Using a contextual approach to instruction produced greater vocabulary gains than lessons that emphasized learning word definitions,” the report said. 

After all, it makes sense. Will a small child understand the word unfortunate best if they memorize that it means “having or marked by bad fortune; unlucky; unfavorable or inauspicious”? Or will they understand it better if you read them a story about an “unfortunate” occurrence at school, as they view an illustration of a sad child and a sympathetic teacher? 

Asking questions and engaging kids in wordplay and word exercises with the target vocabulary also lead to greater gains in learning. In the next section, we’ll go over some of the fun activities you can use to help your child master new words. 

A Step-by-Step Guide to Teaching Kids Vocabulary

Use the following method to help your child understand, remember, and master new vocabulary. 

1. Note unfamiliar words that your child encounters.

As you continue to read books to and with your children, take note of words your child doesn’t know. Jot down any unfamiliar words they come across in other settings, too—including during conversation, on TV, and in other kinds of reading material they encounter, such as signs or menus. Choosing words they’ve encountered will help them learn new words in context, which in turn reinforces their learning. 

2. Come up with age-appropriate definitions.  

When your child encounters a new word, come up with a definition of the word that your child will understand. If you’re having trouble, ask them to wait while you look up the dictionary definition, but don’t read it out to them. Instead, take a moment to rephrase the definition in a way you think they’ll get.

For example, if your child encounters the word joyful in a story where the main character is reunited with his lost dog, you might explain the word this way: “Tommy was joyful because he had found his long-lost dog. Joyful means you’re full of joy, which is happiness. So being joyful means you’re extremely happy.”

3. Explain vocabulary words with examples and counter-examples.

This is one of the most valuable steps for helping kids really understand new words. Explain the meaning and usage of the word with multiple examples.

In this case, you’d share some personal examples that they’ll connect with: “I’m joyful on summer days when we can go swimming in the pool. I’m also joyful on Christmas morning when we can open presents together.”

Then ask your child to point out situations that make them feel joyful. Ask them to use the word in a sentence to get more familiar with it.

Aside from giving examples of how the target word is used, also give counter-examples. You could point out that, while being reunited with a beloved pet is a joyful experience, losing a pet would be the opposite, a sad experience. 

Then ask your child to share situations that are the opposite of joyful—situations that would make them feel sad or grieved. (Note the social-emotional learning opportunity here too!)

4. Revisit new words.

Return to new words later to fix them in your child’s memory, or repeat the definition when you encounter them again. Remind your child of the specific book or circumstances where they encountered that word. 

For example, you could remind your child that they saw the word joyful in the story about Tommy. “Remember? Tommy felt joyful because he’d found Rover.”

5. Use fun activities to reinforce the word’s meaning.

Games and play will further reinforce the new word’s meaning and correct usage. Here are some easy word games to play with your child:

  • Word associations – Ask your child, “What does the word joyful make you think of? What other words go with joyful?” Allow this game to get as playful and silly as you both like.
  • Use their senses – Ask your child to describe what they saw, tasted, felt, smelled, or heard in a joyful situation. This game also encourages creativity and thinking analytically.
  • Describe a word in pictures – Ask the child, especially younger kids, to describe the word in pictures. E.g., ask your child to draw situations that make them feel joyful. This contextual approach reinforces the meaning and usage of the word in a way that’s light and fun.
  • Play word board games – Play word games like charades, vocabulary Pictionary, and vocabulary bingo to help your child master new words. Include words you’ve taught in previous weeks to reinforce the learning.

Also, check out the family activities published on this site for lots of activities designed to build and reinforce children’s vocabulary knowledge, from word games and crafts to easy-read recipes.

6. Teach unusual and challenging words, along with everyday vocabulary.

As you select words to focus on with your child, it’s helpful to know that educators think of vocabulary as falling into three general buckets. This can be a useful framework for parents as well:

  • Basic vocabulary words that pop up frequently in everyday speech. Children learn these words primarily through conversation. Examples include baby, clock, phone, rain, dog, and happy
  • Sophisticated, high-frequency words that kids aren’t as likely to learn naturally, because they’re typically found in written texts and adult conversations. These words are also more likely to have multiple meanings. Examples include masterpiece, industrious, benevolent, and unfortunate
  • Low-frequency words found in specific disciplines and occupations, such as technology, medicine, and academia. Examples include isotope and amino acid

When choosing vocabulary words to teach your child, you may want to focus on words in the second group, as they’re simultaneously challenging and widely useful. 

Ready to dive deeper? For more vocabulary activities and word-learning strategies, check out the book Bringing Words to Life. We also like Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids for digging into how word meanings develop over time.

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