A Simple Approach to an Essential Tool: Vocabulary

If a child is able to retell the basic plot of a story just heard or read, or fill in workbooks by copying the correct passages, is it proof that comprehension has taken place? Unfortunately, the answer is “No.” Kids can get the gist of a story without visualizing what was heard or read and without understanding expressions used. Recently, a child read to me from an Arthur story. Arthur’s sister asked if he had asked their parents about having a pet. He said that he was “waiting for the right moment.” Because this is a common expression, most of us would assume the child understood the meaning and let him continue without interruption. However, over the years I have learned never to assume. I stopped him and asked what the expression meant. He merely repeated the phrase.

“Yes, but what does that mean?”

“Not the wrong moment?” he offered.

“What would be a wrong moment?” I asked. He looked confused, so I gave him a situation that he could relate to. “If your mom was on the telephone talking to me, would you run up to her and pull at her, asking for a dog?”


“Why not?” He looked confused again, so I added, “If she was talking on the phone do you think she would say “yes” or “no” if you asked for a dog?”



“Because she’s busy.”

“So, would that have been a right moment or a wrong moment to ask?”

“A wrong moment.”

“So what would be a right moment?”When she’s not busy!” The confusion cleared and he was quite happy with himself. I praised him while at the same time giving him the generalization that he needed to take with him.

“That’s right! Good thinking! A right moment would be when you think you have the best chance of getting the answer you want. Let’s see what moment Arthur picks.”

By directing his thinking, rather than quickly offering a definition, I had assured myself that he would understand this expression in the future. Sometimes, however, discussion isn’t enough. A child may need to act out an image before “getting it.”

A student read a paragraph about a man chopping wood who heard a bear approach. The man grabbed a pile of wood in his arms, hurried to the house and “elbowed” his way through the door. The student could tell me that the man hurried to the house because a bear was nearby, but he could not imagine how he entered the house other than turning a doorknob. I had him hold his arms as if carrying wood (if he’d been young I would have filled his arms with pillows) and go through the nearby door– which was slightly ajar–by using his elbow. He did, and looked quite triumphant.

At other times, children need to see what they are reading about before it becomes meaningful. I grew up with cowboy shows on television. When I read The Little House on the Prairie I drew on images from those programs to picture the house, clothing, utensils, and even the scenery described in the book. It is important that children learn the names of things that they see around them, whether at home, on field trips, or while watching television or videos. Otherwise, how are they to bring those images to mind when they read? Would your child be able to visualize a willow tree? Or would he just imagine whatever type of tree he sees nearby? Would he be able to visualize a daffodil, or would that image be just any flower? And if clothing was described as silk or velvet would he also know that those are costly materials, which would lead him, by inference, to a more meaningful understanding of the story?

Vocabulary workbooks that use words in meaningful sentences (providing a context) can help a child concentrate on words and their meanings. But unless the children then use those words in their own conversations or compositions, or come across them in books they read, they are likely to forget them. Therefore, it is essential that we also surround our children with language, pausing to explain words and expressions and to name objects. It helps to have books of flowers and wildlife–pictures with bits of information–sitting on the shelf along with the dictionary for quick reference. Roget’s Thesaurus is another helpful reference, but children should be taught that there may be subtle differences in connotations for words listed as synonyms. For example, someone who has a sense of humor may not have a sense of mockery even though humor and mockery are listed as synonyms of farce.

When children are young, it is essential that they be given opportunities to build a vocabulary out of experiences. In that way, they have memories to draw on that will aid their understanding of more complex works when they are older. Read aloud picture books that name objects, stories that illustrate how things work or are made, riddle and joke books that use play on words, and Amelia Bedilia stories to teach idioms. Amelia is a maid that takes everything literally. When told to “dress the chicken for dinner,” she puts the raw bird into the roasting pan, but instead of baking it, she simply ties on ribbons and booties before placing it on the dinner table. Because young children think literally, they love to laugh at Amelia for doing the very things they’ve thought of.

Take children to fabric shops and point out calico prints, cotton, linen, velvet, silk, etc. Walk through furniture stores pointing out different styles and noting whether something is very expensive, or affordable for the average family. Visit history museums or zoos that place animals in a setting and talk about the actual size of birds and wildlife that they may have only seen in pictures. It’s one thing to read about the tiny size of a hummingbird, and quite another to see one. These experiences build a strong foundation that pays off later in greater depth of understanding.

For example, on a family trip to the zoo, we stood at a rail about 4 feet from the bars of cage watching a lion. Suddenly, without appearing to open his mouth, a rumbling roar emerged that seemed to echo through our bodies, filling us each with absolute panic. Despite the heavy bars we found ourselves running in all directions. The next time our children heard the devil described as “a roaring lion . . .seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8) it was much more vivid, adding depth to their understanding of how the enemy can use fear to scatter a group or paralyze us (in our thinking). So don’t fret over the amount of time spent on the hands-on approach to learning in contrast to using only fill-in-the-blanks. The time is well spent.

For additional insights in building reading comprehension skills, refer to my book Critical Conditioning. The Natural Speller can also be referred to for further ideas on building vocabulary.