How to improve your child’s vocabulary: Part One

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Have you ever instructed your child to learn a new word and when you test him a few days later, it has mysteriously vanished from his memory?

The reason for this is that many children do not use strategies for vocabulary development. In fact, the meaning of the word is just one of the many pieces of knowledge that an English language learner needs to store in his vocabulary bank. On top of this, there are other components to learn to use English fluently in reading and writing, in different contexts.

Vocabulary: Meaning

One important aspect of vocabulary building is the definition of the word. Nowadays, it is easy to do so as long as you are near a computer or have a smartphone; Google is just a couple of clicks away. But always remember that many English words have more than one meaning. Remind your child to read all the definitions and keep in mind the context as this will help him know which meaning applies. One joke I always remember is that, even though one meaning of ‘dear’ is ‘expensive’, we cannot start a letter with “Expensive John”.

It is important to check the dictionary for meanings.

Vocabulary: Spelling

It is also important to learn the spelling of a word as your child will learn new words by listening. He must also learn the spelling, or he might not be able to recognise it later when he reads it in a book or comprehension passage. Homophones, words that have a similar pronunciation with different spelling, can make spelling tricky for children. One example is “write” and “right”. For this reason, it is important to ensure that your child gets the spelling correct so that he can use it properly in his writing.

It is important to learn how to spell – especially if you are the one telling people to use English properly.

Vocabulary: Pronunciation

Understanding a word is also getting your child to know its correct pronunciation. Knowing the word, but not knowing how to pronounce it, will lead to situations when your child does not recognise the word in conversations. It might also cause embarrassment when your child mispronounces it. Pronunciation of English words can sometimes be frustrating – some are pronounced differently from its spelling and letter combinations are pronounced differently, depending on the positions of the letters. For example, the “ch” sound is pronounced differently in “champion”, “cliché”, and “chaos”. There are many tools you can use to help your child such as online dictionaries which provide an audio recording of the standard pronunciation.

Vocabulary: Part of Speech

Knowing which part of speech is important as it will help your child use a word correctly. Let me just give you an example – consistent is an adjective while consistency is a noun. Consider these two sentences – ‘Women and men need to be consistent in their actions’ and ‘There is consistency in the way they deal with the problems.’ In the first sentence, the adjective form is used because the word ‘consistent’ describes their actions. In the second sentence, a noun form is used because the sentence requires a word that names their consistent behaviour.

Vocabulary: Word-family relations

Word families are groups of words with a shared base, but with different prefixes, suffixes and forms. Because most words in the English language belong to word families, it is beneficial for your child to learn word families to expand his vocabulary. Take, for example, the word family of ‘motive’. ‘Motive’ is the root word. Using this root word, we can find the ‘sibling’ words of motivation (noun) and motivated (adjective). Another example is the word ‘use’. We can add a prefix to form ‘reuse’ and add a suffix to form either ‘useful’ or ‘useless’.

Vocabulary: Synonyms

Another strategy to help your child’s vocabulary would be to study synonyms (words with similar meanings). Knowing synonyms can help your child to use alternative words in different contexts or when he is writing his essay. Instead of using the word ‘pretty’ all the time, he can alternate between ‘beautiful’, ‘good-looking’ and ‘lovely’. Likewise, we use ‘casualty’ and ‘victim’ in different contexts, and it is important to know when to use it.

Word knowledge is complex. Your child may not have mastered the word even if he knows its meaning. In addition to these, there are additional components such as register, connotation, context, related words and antonyms. We will discuss these in a follow-up blog post. Finally, applying all these parts will help your child understand and grow his vocabulary. So it is important to study more than just the definition. You can read more about developing vocabulary here.

An adapted version of this article appeared in the POPCLUB March 2015 magazine issue.