Learning to read 3: vocabulary

5 - 10 years
Child with books

Did you know there are five key skills that help children learn to read? The third is ‘vocabulary’. Read on for eight great tips on how to help your child master this important skill.

What is ‘Vocabulary’?

Your child’s ‘vocabulary’ is the set of words that they know, use and understand. Research has shown that children with larger vocabularies do better at reading and at school in general. This is because students who know more words can understand new ideas and concepts faster than students who have more limited vocabularies.

Our vocabularies continue to grow as we learn new words throughout our lives. Children learn many words incidentally, as they hear them in conversation or come across them in books. When they get to school, they will also be explicitly taught new words in class to help develop their vocabularies.

How can you help your child?

There are many things that you can do to help your child develop their vocabulary. Here are eight tips to get you started.

Read, read, read!

The more variety in the types of reading materials your child reads (or is read), the more words they are exposed to. Children’s storybooks and graded home readers are a great start, but there’s a lot more for your child to explore beyond the books written for children. Magazines and non-fiction books often have attractive pictures, and your child can pick up new words from headlines and captions even if the text is beyond them at this stage.  Don’t forget all the words that are around you too, such as street signs, posters, packaging, TV and movie titles, fridge magnets, catalogues, flyers and brochures. It’s amazing how many words your child sees in a day!

Reinforce classroom learning

Once your child starts bringing home word lists, try to use them sometimes in conversation. The same approach is helpful with new words that your child comes across in home readers or other classroom materials. If your child finds these words easy, see if you can give them more advanced synonyms – for example, crimson for red, or ebony for black.

Talk and describe

When you talk to your child, try to use interesting words to describe things.
Look at the ice floating in the glass – see how buoyant it is!

Explain and explore

When your child comes across a new word and the time is right, help them learn about it. Explain what the word means, and relate it to something they already know.
Apprehensive means worried, like how you might feel if you’re going to a party and you don’t know anyone.

If it’s a long word or has tricky sounds, you might say the word slowly and clearly so your child can see the shapes that your mouth makes. If your child isn’t interested in having a ‘lesson’ about the word, that’s fine too – not every moment is a teaching moment!

Increase their exposure

Going to different places, talking with different people and being in different situations is an easy way to expand your child’s vocabulary, as they’ll naturally come across different words – a  conversation with grandpa about gardening will have very different words to a conversation with a teenager about the latest game! It’s also good for your child to have opportunities to just listen to adults talking to each other (when appropriate!), as the topics and vocabulary are likely to be quite different from the conversations that adults have with children.

Play word games

Playing with words through games, songs, and humour can help draw your child’s attention to the words around them, and make learning new words fun and interesting! Try these articles for specific ideas.

But that’s so boring!
Get down with nouns!
What’s new here?
Give that verb a prize!
Wonderful words and silly sentences
G’day. Good morning. Hi.
Solve the mystery!


Praise your child for noticing new words, and especially for using them. If your child mispronounces or misuses a word, don’t correct them directly, just model the proper way in your own sentence – they will learn from your example.
So you’re feeling ‘ravenous’ this morning, are you? That’s a fancy word, I love it!

Use your home language

If your home language is not English, you can also apply the same ideas in your own language. This will develop your child’s vocabulary skills and help them learn to read English (and your own language).

What about the other skills?

For tips on how to help your child master the other four key reading skills, see the other articles in this series.


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Last modified
12 May 2020