Finding the Right Words: Helping Kids Build Vocabulary

Multiple-meaning words on color stickers

When a student knows the correct answer but cannot show it, sometimes it’s the formal language of academic vocabulary that gets in the way. Sometimes the problem is a word that has multiple meanings, as the following true stories show.

  • A child was confused by a test with the following direction: “Ring the correct answer.” She didn’t recognize that her teacher was using “ring” as another word for “circle,” so she didn’t know what to do.
  • A middle school student saw “Name the polygon” on his math assignment. Not understanding that this meant to identify the term for the shape—and lacking any better idea—he named his polygon “Tim.”
  • An emerging reader came across the phrase “a house of straw” in the story The Three Little Pigs. She pictured a house built with plastic drinking straws. No wonder the wolf blew it down, she thought.

There are many words in the English language that sound, look, or are spelled the same—yet that have very different meanings. To succeed, students need to grasp these sometimes confusing complexities of our language early on. Throughout school, they must also continue expanding their academic vocabulary with words and terms commonly used in education. Parents can help support this vocabulary growth by being aware of some of the pitfalls of learning language and by giving students opportunities to practice using words.

Understanding Multiple-Meaning Words

For young elementary school students, it’s important to learn that a pear is a piece of fruit and that a pair is two of the same thing. Pair can also be used as a verb; a worksheet might ask a child to “pair items,” meaning to find the items that match. (Of course, the student must also understand that a match can light a fire!) In addition to reading with your child, there are many fun ways you can use to help your student remember the difference between two words that sound alike, such as bear and bare, male and mail, and hear and here. Try acting out the meaning of the words or making up a silly sentence that contains both words.

Multiple-meaning words can confuse students of all ages. A very young child may know that a foot has five toes but may not yet know that another type of foot is a 12-inch measurement! A slightly older child may need to learn that a table in a lesson might mean a chart showing data, rather than a piece of furniture. A degree can be a unit of measurement for recording temperature or an academic title earned by graduating from a college or university. A science lab might use a concentrate (noun), while the science student will have to concentrate (verb) to complete the lab correctly. Can you think of other examples you could explain to your child?

Other vocabulary used in school rarely turns up in everyday conversation. “Cite your sources” may mean nothing to young students, or they might think it has something to do with vision. A teenager with a freshly minted driver’s license might have negative thoughts about the word cite if he or she has been cited for speeding or running a stop sign. Learning that cite means list or refer to can help that student learn to create a bibliography and use appropriate references.

As they advance, students also need to recognize academic language and know what it means. Fluency, for example, can mean reading aloud with an appropriate pace and expression. Comprehension means understanding. Paraphrase means that students need to explain in their own words. And how about summarize?

Helping Kids Build Vocabulary

Now that you’re aware of the potential for confusion, how can you, as a parent or Learning Coach, help? You can support your children in expanding academic vocabulary by following these tips.

  • Use your sense of humor. Pretend to “name the polygon” after a book character or a friend or relative. Then explain that naming a polygon really means to count the sides and/or angles and then assign it the correct name based on its Latin or Greek root. Three angles? Triangle. Six sides? A hexagon.
  • Share jokes that feature puns or words with multiple meanings. Teach kids the old riddle “What’s black and white and red all over?” (a newspaper) and they’ll remember the difference between the color and the past-tense of “to read.” Ask your child, “Why did the cat come down from the tree?” (Because it saw the tree bark!) You’ll have fun with your family while helping your child learn new words and understand the concept of multiple meanings.
  • Model (demonstrate) reading strategies. When you come across an unfamiliar name while reading together, point out that you don’t have to know how to pronounce it. Knowing that it’s a name is enough information to keep reading, solve the problem, or understand the concept.
  • Practice using context, or the text before and after the unfamiliar word, to determine meaning when reading. Look up the word in a glossary, dictionary, or online resource later.
  • Model the use of correct terminology. The next time your children say, “Google it,” remind them that what they really mean is, “Look it up!” You can also expand vocabulary by challenging your kids to come up with the word for common brand-name items. Do they know that a “Coke” is a beverage, that a Kleenex is a tissue, or that Jell-O is gelatin? Make it a contest to see who can find the most “official words” for familiar brand-name items.
  • Read aloud with your family. This is the most effective, least expensive way to expand vocabulary.

You may have noticed that none of these suggestions are difficult! Merely by being aware of the trickier aspects of learning language and by weaving discussions of words and their meanings into everyday family life, parents can easily support children’s vocabulary growth and help them excel!

How do you approach new and challenging vocabulary in lessons?

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