Primary English Tips | Vocabulary: Building through Reading

The question, "How do I build up my child's vocabulary?" popped up at almost every meet-the-parents conference I had and even during conversations with the parents of some of my children now. The anxiety of the parents stems from the low score their children achieved in the vocabulary section in Booklet A and the comprehension cloze in booklet B. After all, these two sections test your child's understanding and ability to use appropriate words in a given context.

The most straightforward and effective answer is to read and this is definitely true. The benefits of extensive reading are far and many with vocabulary growth being one of them. However, many parents are perplexed by why their children always seem to be reading but they still have rather limited vocabulary. Bearing this in mind, here are a few points I would like to highlight about reading to build up vocabulary.

1. Read texts from a wide variety of genres.

Most children will usually go for narratives or even comic strips when asked to read. It is not uncommon to see a child's face fall if he/she is asked to read the newspaper or even other information texts found in magazines. However, it is crucial for children to read a wide selection of texts from a variety of genres as the vocabulary and writing styles used for each genre differs

For instance, reading a novel may be very helpful in building up descriptive phrases for characters and emotions. However, shorter authentic texts from the real world like newspaper articles or even a soccer match review (e.g. vocabulary about sports - podium, break a record, in his element) allow learning of vocabulary that are more specific to various topics in a contextualised manner to take place.

Learning topic-specific vocabulary actually seems more efficient and creates better understanding when set in a current and real world event. In addition, children get to learn these vocabulary in a contextualised manner rather than in a spelling list which will making learning a lot more meaningful.

If your child finds it hard to read texts of other genres, help him/her by shortlisting a newspaper article (I like to print my articles from a day or even keeping interesting leaflets or official letters of notifications for them to read. The latter has an additional effect of making children feel important as they read letters meant for adults! (:

2.  Read materials pitched at a comfortable level.

Reading a difficult book packed with powerful words does not mean you will learn more. In fact, reading a book that is beyond your child's competency level not only hinders understanding, it also makes reading frustrating. How can you help your child choose a book that is at his/her reading level?

Consider the 5-finger rule:
1. Flip to the second page of a book.
2. For every word that you do not know, put up a finger.
3. If you put up 1 to 4 fingers, this book is a good fit and challenges without causing frustration.
4. If there are 5 or more fingers up, this book maybe too challenging for now.


If your child is unconvinced, try the rule on a few more pages. Let your child know that when a book is filled with too many words which he/she finds hard to understand, he/she will end up skipping many important parts. It will be more enjoyable to understand the book and the author when he/she is ready.

Keep a list of such books to revisit when your child has improved. He/she will find great satisfaction when he/she sees the difference!

Remember, we want to encourage children to love reading and not to be put off because reading seems too difficult!

3. Reading is about quality AND quantity.

The two points above have addressed the quality of reading and this third point talks about the importance of reading as much as your child can. Researchers have found that students who read just 10 minutes a day outside of school demonstrate significantly higher rates of vocabulary growth than students who do almost no reading outside of school (Nagy and Anderson 1984) . In addition, a child needs to encounter new words regularly in various contexts in order for them to remember and to know how to use the word appropriately. Hence, encourage your child to read more and frequently.

Creating a reward system based on the number of books your child reads is fun and can help motivate reluctant readers. Being a role model who is seen reading constantly is also a powerful way to influence your child to read. You can even share what you have read with your child and hence, encourage your child to share what he/she has read in return.

Moving On...

With these three points about reading highlighted, I hope your child's love for reading (for all genres!) will grow. In my next post, I will talk about what to do with the new vocabulary your child comes across while reading. Do they just write down the meaning and that is it? Or are there other activities you child can do with the new word to perhaps retain it better?

(For an overview of what extensive reading is and the benefits it offers, you may want to read more here.)

If you are thinking of growing your library of children books, you can view our recommended list by our lil' ones and teachers. These are children books we love, and once you have read them, you will fall in love too.