Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rare Words: Building Vocabulary for Success in School

Baby bookworm, of course, isn't the only one around here doing all the reading.  While I'm not a huge fiction reader (although I do read the occasional mystery novel), I do love psychology textbooks and education-related informational books, so to speak (particularly about language development and literacy).  I think I enjoy these kinds of books lately because it makes me feel like I'm keeping fresh in my field which I need to do since I'm not currently working full-time (well, you know, the mom gig is much more than full time, but I'm not working for a paycheck).  One of the books that I'm currently reading is the national best-seller, The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (sixth edition, copyright 2006) - you might have heard of it.  Overall the book has great suggestions for parents (and policticans if they're reading) and outlines some astounding research on literacy.  If I can't persuade you to read, read, read to your child - this book will certainly scare you into it (as well as make you want to throw your TV away).  Anyway, I feel the need to quote from his text because I found what he wrote to be very interesting, informational, and inspiring (for this blog topic).  This quote is on the topic of skills necessary for Kindergarten:

"There is one prekindergarten skill that matters above all others, because it is the prime predictor of school success or failure: the child's vocabulary upon entering school.  Yes, the child goes to school to learn new words, but the words he or she already knows determine how much of what the teacher says will be understood.  And since most instruction for the first four years of school is oral, the child who has the largest vocabulary will understand the most, while the child with the smallest vocabulary will grasp the least." (pg. 13)

Umm...that makes perfect sense.  To me anyway.  I have made it a practice to try to "teach" baby bookworm new vocabulary words, but had never really considered the fact that some vocabulary words are more valuable than others.  Trelease goes on to say that understanding "rare words" really plays a crucial role in learning to read and succeeding in school, as opposed to "common" vocabulary that is mostly used in regular conversations.  So where does a little child learn these "rare words"?  You guessed it - books, of course.  But how does a child learn these "rare words"?  That's what I'm about to tell you.

Baby bookworm is 16-months and I know you're probably thinking that aren't ALL words pretty rare to her right now?  And they are to some extent.  But my guess is that baby bookworm  has hundreds of words in her expressive vocabulary (words she can actually say), and might have reached the infamous "vocabulary spurt" that generally occurs around 18-months slightly early.  Baby bookworm has even entered the telegraphic speech stage of language development which generally occurs in children around age 2.  In this stage toddlers begin to put together 2 words at a time (like a telegraph, hence the name) to convey a whole sentence.  For instance she might say "more water" or "daddy home" (my husband's favorite).  So I think it's as good a time as any to make sure I'm doing my part in helping her learn rare words.

So here's a few examples of some rare words that baby bookworm has recently learned, and the strategies I used to help her to acquire this new vocabulary.  These strategies aren't rocket science and are probably things you do anyway.  But, that said, there has been research to show that many adults just read books to children cover to cover without any attention or explanation given to the rare words.  I'm just here to remind you to not fall into that category.   

1). Give the definition or a synonym

Book: David Goes to School, by David Shannon
Rare Word: Tardy

This is a delightful book in the David series where David learns the ins and outs of what to do (and not to do) in school.  This book would actually be great for a teacher to read to his or her class at the onset of a new school year.

Basically, when we got to the page where the teacher says, "David, you're tardy" I explained to baby bookworm that the word tardy means late.  Believe it or not, every time we get to this page she says "he's late".  (I told you this isn't rocket science)

2). Use inference or comparison

Book: Lily's Potty
Rare Word: Whisk
This is a lift-the-flap potty training book that baby bookworm really enjoys (as is the case with most lift-the-flap books).  The main character Lily looks for her potty and the reader has to lift the flap to see if the potty is found.  Not surprisingly, Lily finds her potty in the bathroom (not in the garden).

In one of the pictures in the book Lily's mom has a tray full of cookies, and Lily is holding a whisk.  Now, the text does not contain the word "whisk" but baby bookworm kept pointing to the whisk and saying "spoon".  I could have said nice job baby bookworm and moved along, but it was the perfect opportunity to introduce a new word.  So, I explained that it was a "whisk" - which is very much like a spoon because it's a utensil and stirs things but looks a little bit different.

3). Refer to an illustration

Book: The Very Hungry Catepillar by Eric Carle
Rare Word: Cocoon

This book is a classic, and Eric Carle a children's book legend.  In the story a little caterpillar eats his way through a week's worth of food, spins a cocoon and eventually becomes a beautiful butterfly (introducing yet another rare word: metamorphosis).

Can it be any easier than this?  Yes, if you come to a rare word, just point out the illustration that refers to the word! 

4). Use the child's experience

Book: Pumpkin Eye by Denise Fleming
Rare Word: Jack-o-lantern

This is a fun Halloween picture book.  The illustrations have an eerie feel to them but it's a great book for the Fall season.

Not exactly sure if jack-o-lantern falls into the "rare" words category but it's the best I could come up with to illustrate this strategy.  Despite this being a Halloween book we read it all the time, and baby bookworm asks for it by name. The word jack-o-lantern is used throughout this story and not only did I point to the picture of the jack-o-lantern (hence using strategy #3) but I reminded baby bookworm that we carved jack-o-lanterns back when it was Halloween.  I even got out the picture I took of her next to her newly carved pumpkin to help her with this word.

That's it.  Simple, and yet we might be doing these things less than we should be.  Feel free to share your own strategies!  These were adapted from some research I read about in a book called

To quote myself in the first paragraph, I hope you have found this post "interesting, informational" and last but not least, "inspiring".     


  1. This is a great post and I love The Read Aloud Handbook. I was so sad when my first grader came home to tell me that the librarian had said certain books were "too advanced" for him (at an elementary library). I love reading him books that are above his reading level. They are wonderful stories and enrich his vocabulary.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Interesting and informative! Teachers adopt varied strategies to grab the attention of the students to learn new words. Students are able to align with few techniques but not all the methods adopted are purposely solving the issue of remembering and retaining words for a longer duration of time. So to learn and retain words visit www.vocabmonk.com


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