Q: I heard on NPR that kids who develop large vocabularies early on have huge advantages all through school. We read with our first- and second-graders every night. Should we do word lists with them, too?
A: Keep reading, but nix the lists. It's important for young learners to build strong vocabularies; research shows that the more word power they have, the better readers and writers they become. But research also suggests that memorizing definitions isn't very effective because kids forget them when the words are introduced without any context for their use.
"Learning anything, including new words, involves connecting new information with what you already know," says Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., a Kent State University professor of literacy education. "There's a fun way to learn new words. I call it 'word-harvesting.'"
Word-harvesting highlights the words found in children's books and magazines as well as poetry and song lyrics and makes them more visible to kids.
"Here's how it works: Before reading each night, ask your children to listen for interesting words. When you've finished a passage, ask if any words intrigue them," says Rasinski.
For example, say you're reading William Steig's "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" (Aladdin, 1987): "Sylvester Duncan lived with his mother and father at Acorn Road in Oatsdale. One of his hobbies was collecting pebbles of unusual shape and color. On a rainy Saturday during vacation he found a quite extraordinary one. It was flaming red, shiny, and perfectly round, like a marble. As he was studying this remarkable pebble, he began to shiver, probably from excitement, and the rain felt cold on his back. 'I wish it would stop raining,' he said. To his great surprise, the rain stopped. It didn't stop gradually as rains usually do. It ceased!"
"This 95-word excerpt is a treasure trove: pebbles, extraordinary, remarkable, flaming, gradually, shiver, ceased." says Rasinski. "Harvest these words on a family word wall or in a paper or digital notebook that kids can refer to."
Poems and songs can yield a great crop of words, too, says Rasinski. "I often sing '(You're a) Grand Old Flag' when word-harvesting with primary students. We collect high-flying, grand, acquaintance, boast, brag, brave, peace, and emblem -- great words for young writers to use."
As you go, elaborate on the meanings of the chosen words and offer synonyms, Rasinski advises.
"Often, it's helpful to reread the passage," he says. "Once you've harvested the words, use them in sentences and conversation in the following days. Share the words with grandparents so that they can use them with your kids. Post them on the family Facebook page."
Many experts think primary-age students should master 3,000 new words each year. When you word-harvest, they add up quickly, notes Rasinski, author of the series "Building Vocabulary From Word Roots" (Teacher Created Materials).
"If you harvest 10 words a night, five nights a week, your children will have acquired 2,600 words just in your nightly reading," he says. "And the family's had great fun in the process!"
(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.)