04 February 2016
Reading for Vocabulary Development
Children’s earliest years (zero to three) are critical for vocabulary development and, by extension, later school success.
Research has shown that differences in vocabulary acquisition (a.k.a., the “word gap”) evident among three year olds influences how they perform academically and that intervention in the elementary school years has limited influence. Young children learn, on average, five new words every day with an average expressive vocabulary of 5,000 words and receptive vocabulary of 20,000 words or more by age 6. There are notable differences that distinguish the children at the higher end of the range (who in general, have three times as many words as the children at the low end).
One significant difference is the extent to which children experience reading, and specifically, the direct teaching of vocabulary through reading. Read alouds, in general, are a wonderful way in which to expose children to low frequency words (i.e., words they do not otherwise encounter in daily conversation). When parents and teachers support children’s understanding of the words through visual cues, social context or connections with prior experience, the children learn to use the words themselves and retain them more easily. Reading across genres, including non-fiction, poetry, history and world cultures, provides children with even greater exposure to vocabulary and sets them up for success as independent readers.
Exposure to words via television, audiobooks or other media does not replicate the experience of a read-aloud, as they lack the two-way give-and-take of explanation. Good reading habits and feel-good incentives to read come through personal interaction. For more information about reading, the “word gap,” and vocabulary development, see literacy.rice.edu/thirty-million-word-gap, www.naeyc.org/tyc/article/the-word-gap and Hart and Risley “The Early Catastrophe.”