The Need for Vocabulary Expansion

Words. We use words all day long. Sometimes we may even use ‘bad words’! Let’s be honest, who hasn’t been horrified when their toddler came out with a ‘bad word’ in public. In private it can be hilarious but in the wrong company – cue absolute mortification! We absorb language as children and we learn how to structure it correctly by listening to others. We pick up local dialects and family phrasing. We learn that words like cuddle and snuggle mean the same thing and so our vocabulary starts to expand.

Why Vocabulary Expansion?

To learn to read effectively a child needs to have a large vocabulary. Without this, when the child does read they stumble over words that they do not know, and have trouble following the idea of the sentence. This leads to frustration and a dislike of reading. When a child is faced with this difficulty he or she is less likely to read, thus further inhibiting the growth of their vocabulary.

Children who enjoy reading do it more frequently and improve their vocabulary.

In the US a study of out-of-school reading of fifth graders found that a student in the 50th percentile read books about 5 minutes a day, while a student in the 20th percentile read books for less than a minute a day. This same study found that the amount of time a child in the 10th percentile spent reading in two days, was the amount of time a child in the 90th percentile spent reading all year.

Changes in Curriculum

The curriculum for Irish & English in primary school is changing, albeit on a phased basis.  Instead of having two separate subjects, instead, the initial focus will be on language development and vocabulary expansion. Children will learn to understand words and how to use them in the spoken word before learning to read, write and spell.

In my opinion, this will be revolutionary. It turns on its head everything that we used to expect in junior & senior infants. It helps to recognise that children develop language at different rates and this is very evident in the infant classes where some children are much older than others when they start school.

Phonics has trained children into being able to decipher words and pronounce them. However, this skill can also be the reason why many children dislike reading. Having to stop and sound out words can inhibit fluency in reading, leading those children to shy away from reading for pleasure.

Essential Kit

Being able to read is no guarantee that a child actually understands what they are reading! This is why vocabulary expansion and language acquisition is so important. I always recommend that an essential piece of kit in every household is a thesaurus dictionary. It doesn’t explain what a word is, instead it gives similar words that have the same meaning. Chances are that you will know at least one of those other words and now you can link your existing knowledge to that new word.

Doing crosswords in the newspaper is another brilliant way of expanding your vocabulary and learning interesting facts – you never know when they can come in handy!!

If your child is struggling at school, then contact us to find out more about our programs. Elaine Sparling is the creator of the Hummingbird Learning Method® and CEO of the Hummingbird Learning Centre who help adults and children with their study and literacy needs. Based in Adare and Tralee she can be contacted on 087-2996054 or through our website


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