Vocabulary & Knowledge

The science of PUP Reading: Literacy skills for children 4+

Vocabulary & Knowledge refers to skills that are important for understanding books and other texts. When children can read words (i.e., they have Letters & Sounds skills), they still need to make sense of what the words really mean. To do that, they need a lot of background information, vocabulary, and experience that they can pull from as they attempt to make sense of what they’re reading.

When it comes to understanding what is written in books and other text, having a large oral vocabulary makes a big difference. Children with bigger vocabularies have more success understanding what they read because once they have decoded the words, they have the vocabulary knowledge they need to figure out what the phrases, sentences, and paragraphs mean. Knowing a lot of words can also help a child when she is struggling to read a difficult word because she can use context (which helps sometimes) if she already knows the other words in the sentence. For example, if she knows the vocabulary word conscience, even if she stumbles as she tries to decode the word in a sentence, she can use her oral vocabulary knowledge to figure out what the word is and what the sentence means -- “With a guilty conscience, the girl told the teacher she didn’t deserve an A on the test.”

How do children learn vocabulary words? They learn conversational vocabulary from listening and speaking every day at home, on the playground at school, and in the community. But when it comes to the kind of vocabulary needed to become strong readers, children need more than just conversational vocabulary. Building up more formal academic language happens when children are read to and when they get to regularly talk with adults in their lives about the complex ideas they encounter in books and during other learning experiences. That’s why they need to be immersed in the language of books from the earliest days as part of a regular routine: every time a parent or other caregiver exposes a child to the language of text, that child can build his vocabulary and be better prepared to understand the more abstract language that makes up the sophisticated texts he will have to read independently as he gets older.

Research has demonstrated that children graduate from high school knowing about 50,000 words, and schools certainly can’t teach children all those vocabulary words: word-learning has to start building from birth. But not only do children have to learn individual words, they also have to learn how words work. Knowing how our language works allows children to learn exponentially more words on their own. When they learn or are taught that re- is a prefix that means to do something again, then they can figure out redo once they know the word do. And when they learn that -er at the end of words often means a person who does something, then they can figure out the word teacher when they already know the word teach, and joker once they know the word joke.

Children with less vocabulary knowledge are more likely to have problems understanding what they read, which often means they are less likely to read on their own. This problem compounds, because when children don’t read often they don’t get exposed to the words in books and their word knowledge doesn’t grow. In practice, children with higher vocabulary levels tend to read more because they understand what they read, and those children who read a lot then build their vocabulary levels even more. In vocabulary knowledge, the rich get richer.

Background knowledge is critical for understanding what we read. In other words, when we read something that we already know something about -- when we read a medical report and we have been trained as doctors or nurses, or when we read about jet engines when we know about car engines already -- we are better able to get more information and understanding from what we’re reading. People who know more about a lot of things can more easily read articles or books that they have some knowledge about and can extract more meaning from those texts -- and then gain even more knowledge of the subjects they’re reading about.

So for example, if children have been to a whaling museum or gone on a whale watch or seen a video on whales, then they will be better able to understand and learn from the preschool read aloud of Pinocchio and the Whale, or the assignments to independently read Eye of the Whale in middle school, or Moby Dick in college. In fact, important research (Arya, Hiebert, and Pearson, 2011) showed that children get more from texts when they have background knowledge in the subject, even when the language in the text is complex and difficult to navigate. That study should help parents understand how crucial it is to help children build up their knowledge of the world every day: through book reading, conversations, and experiences.