Q: I've noticed that my son, Garth, a rising third-grader, doesn't have a vocabulary as large as some of the same-age kids he's playing with this summer. Should I get some flash cards?
A: No. There are better ways to help a child develop a stronger vocabulary than rote learning of random word lists, says Tim Rasinski, a Kent State professor of literacy education. Any such learning is often quickly forgotten because the words usually don't connect to what the child knows or is interested in. So nix the flash cards -- ditto for writing words multiple times, copying definitions or filling in worksheets.
To expand Garth's vocabulary, help him "own" the words he loves and add those he wants to know. Find them in a book he enjoys or in topics he's passionate about.
For example, if he's a "Star Wars" fan, he probably has heard the following words, but he may not know them when reading: galaxy, armored, transmissions, intercepted, smashed, reactor. So when he encounters these in "Star Wars" books, have him focus on learning two or three at a time. Have him add the words to a vocabulary notebook under a "Star Wars Words" tab, writing each new word in his notebook, adding a short definition and drawing a picture as a visual reminder. Do this with other topics he's keen on. He's more likely to learn new words this way because they are meaningful to him.
Rasinski reminds us that just because a word is in a notebook, it doesn't mean it's in the brain: "Kids need multiple opportunities to see, write and use new words."
So add them to conversations and Post-it notes ("Garth, I intercepted a dirty sock in the hallway!"). Encourage him to write stories with these new words. Garth will own a galactic batch of words in no time.
This next suggestion may surprise you. In the Summer 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, Rasinski and co-authors Nancy Padak, Karen Bromley and Evangeline Newton make the case that primary-grade children benefit from being clued into Latin and Greek roots. So, for instance, by teaching Garth that the prefix bi means "two" (bicycle), tri means "three" (tricycle) or sub means "under" or "below" (submarine), you can give him a leg up. The authors' article, "Vocabulary: Five Common Misconceptions," concludes with a starter list of Greek and Latin roots. Find it at ascd.org.
Research shows that games are a wonderful way to inspire interest in words and develop knowledge about them, says Rasinski. Many folks learned new words at the kitchen table with Balderdash, Boggle, Buzzword, Pictionary and Scrabble. Kids still get a kick out of these games. Add them to your family's fun and everybody gets a chance to boost their word power.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)