I Can Read System
child vocabulary

The Role of Vocabulary in Literacy Development Success

Certain research studies have identified strong links between children’s working vocabularies and reading achievement. Furthermore, it is suggested that vocabulary is not only a valuable predictor of early years reading success, but also of achievement levels in secondary education.

So, here’s our opinion on the subject…

We believe this is true to a certain extent. A child with a large or comprehensive vocabulary base will have a larger semantic capture. This means they will be able to use vocabulary to reflect that wider base, which may be an asset in the reading acquisition process.

But the relationship between having a large working vocabulary and being able to read is quite a large-scale question. The reading process is about reading words and groups of words, combined with an appreciation of context and semantics. A beginning reader might be able to pronounce a new word, such as for example, ‘comprehensive’ by sequencing the letter string and blending the sequence to articulate the word ‘comprehensive’. With nothing more, this exercise is somewhat futile, leaving the reader articulating the word ‘comprehensive’ but having no notion of what it means. If, however, the unfamiliar word appears in an accessible context for the beginning reader, some progress may occur, and the reader will acquire a new unit of vocabulary. 

For instance, the sentence, “His talk covered all or nearly all elements or aspects of [something], and it was comprehensive.”  Because the sentence first details how the talk covered “all”, or “nearly all elements or aspects”, our beginning reader can assume that the summary of it being ‘comprehensive’ might mean that the talk was all-inclusive.

However, in order for a newly acquired word (increased vocabulary) to be integrated into a person’s vocabulary effectively, it should be extracted from where it was first acquired and applied across any number of applicable contexts. Once students are able to apply this word to new sentences, and the word makes sense in the new context, the person may have acquired new and applicable vocabulary. It is still going to take some time and practice for the student to use their newly acquired word confidently in a variety of contexts.

As a parent, what can you do to help grow your child’s vocabulary and reading skills?

Like many things, vocabulary is essentially acquired through repetition, application and usage. It helps to link known vocabulary with the newly acquired vocabulary. Your child may use his or her established vocabulary to acquire synonyms and antonyms. For example, if a child knows the word ‘kitty’, he or she may acquire the word ‘cat’, then ‘feline’ as newly acquired words (expanded vocabulary). The best way to help your child expand his or her vocabulary is to read to them, exploring words as you go, and connecting words for them – like the kitty, cat, feline example. Encourage your child to learn how to read and from around 3.5 years, it is worth investing in a professional reading acquisition programme to prepare them well for school.

Is there a benchmark of how many words a child should know by age group?

Of course, children learn at different rates, but generally, most children speak their first word between 10 to 14 months of age. By the time your baby is a year old, he or she is probably speaking between one and three words. These will be simple, and possibly not complete words, but you will know what they mean. While most children may have acquired a vocabulary of 150 to 300 words by the age of two, gifted children may have surpassed the 100-word mark by the time they are 18 months old

Extensive vocabulary acquisition is definitely linked to positive outcomes associated with intelligence, social advancement and overall success, but lack of vocabulary is not necessarily a precursor of failure.

By age 3, a toddler's vocabulary is usually 200 words or more, and many children can begin to form sentences of three or four words. Children at this stage of language development can understand more and speak more clearly. By now, you should be able to understand around 75% of what your toddler says. 

As children approach 7 years, a gap in acquisition begins to appear. The top 25% of students have learned around 7000 words by this stage, adding around three new words every day, while the bottom 25% know less than half that amount – around 3000 words. Furthermore, this group are only acquiring one word per day, continually widening the gap.  

Clearly this presents a significant problem in the educational system, and parents who are concerned that their child may fall into this category may need to seek a professional programme to help their child catch up. Concerningly, the methods currently employed by schools Australia-wide will do nothing to address this issue. Read our previous blog, “Why the Australian Education System is Failing Your Child” for more information on the subject.


How does your own vocabulary affect the language development of your child?

A 1980s study found that “Children of professional parents would have experienced 42 million words by the time they were 4 years old!” The study suggested that, consequently, the children of professional parents went on to gain a higher vocabulary, and sooner than their contemporaries.

Considering this, how important is it for you, as parents, to pay attention to the vocabulary you use day to day in front of your children?

The answer is very, but it’s not about exposure, which in isolation will do little to develop a child’s vocabulary. Think about it this way:  You wake up in a foreign country where they speak a completely incomprehensible language as far as you are concerned. Over a few years you have listened to 42 million words. If you have no context to derive meaning, no encouragement to use newly ‘acquired’ words, it is not going to be simple to use this exposure in a meaningful way. 

Your role as parents is very important because you can articulate a context for your child, encourage the acquisition of new vocabulary and reward its use. Meaning is central to vocabulary use but also relevant as part of the acquisition process. Context is more applicable when a person is able to understand what context is or at least how it impacts the word or words in question.

Is good vocabulary an indicator of overall success at school?

Some studies have suggested a link between a good vocabulary and success across the whole spectrum of school subjects. Having spent the last twenty years developing and teaching young children to read as part of a total literacy education, we doubt that to be the case. It might help a child even impress a teacher, but an extensive vocabulary alone will do little to further education. A fully rounded acquisition of literacy that includes good spelling, grammar, comprehension, composition and articulation is the key to strong educational development. 

Worryingly, grammatical errors are popping up all over the place in today’s world, including many of the modern news presenters of major national channels. While some of their vocabulary might sound impressive, their use of grammar is often woefully inept.

To summarise, vocabulary acquisition involves and depends on a number of factors, some of which are available in a specialised literacy learning centre. At an I Can Read centre, a child will hear and acquire new words (extend their vocabulary) and once they learn to read, then the sky’s the limit. They will go on to advanced literacy skills, which include vocabulary development.

But parents also play a vital role in this process, as important factors such as repetition, use, and familiarity with context, etc., require a little more than one hour a week at an I Can Read Centre. Their hourly lesson is critical in establishing process, tools, skills and disciplines required for successful acquisition, and combined with homework and continual support from parents, a child’s fully rounded literacy development will accelerate.

Considering the context of falling rates of literacy proficiency in Australia, it’s clear that children are not gaining a meaningful education in vocabulary development, or the English language in general. Every year, more and more parents are taking their child’s literacy education into their own hands and turning to specialist education centres for help.