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Vocabulary Drill

On a pretty regular basis, I’ll haul out a word with my three-to-five-year-olds at KIP that many don’t know. Inevitably, the main teacher or assistant for that class will look at me, shake her head, and say something like “they don’t know what that means” or “they don’t know words like that.”

To which I silently retort, “And they won’t if they never hear it.” And then I continue on my way.

It’s not like I’m using words like “heuristic” or “peroration” with preschoolers. Of course not. But I don’t simplify my speech as much as my peers do either. In part, this is owing to my natural speech patterns, which I simplified for Simon about as much as I’m willing or able to. I cannot baby talk, period. And in part it’s an index (another word I don’t use, fyi) of a philosophical difference.

I like language. I like playing around with English’s vast vocabulary. And I assume that if you want children to do the same, they have to be exposed to it. My mother felt much the same and spoke in near-adult ways to me and my siblings as children. I did/do the same with Simon, and I am doing the same with the KIP kids. I am happy to repeat a word in context for kids. I am happy to repeat a word and then use a simpler word with a similar meaning. If something is really important, I’m happy to repeat an entire sentence in a simpler fashion more than once.

But I refuse to banish most of my vocabulary when talking to the kids. I have always assumed that my mother’s speech around me was largely responsible for my own good vocabulary, and that my and Matt’s speech with Simon is largely responsible for his good vocabulary. And it turns out, there’s data out there to support me.

According to research, children from low-income homes know 600 fewer words as 3-year-olds than their better-off peers. By second grade, the gap widens to 4,000 words. This vocabulary gap in turn effects a huge gap in reading comprehension skills. Children can’t understand what they are reading if they have to look up very many words; they lose their flow. They need to know the word before they read it, and that takes repeated exposure beginning in early childhood.

Vindication is mine! (Can I use “vindicate” around 3-year-olds?…)

Even apart from the long-term benefits of children growing up in vocabulary-rich environments, there are some pretty rich short-term ones. Namely, listening as your kid tries to figure out the right way to use a word that has caught his or her fancy. I can still remember a time two years ago or so when Simon badly wanted to use “embarrassed” in a sentence. He’d say he was embarrassed by a red light when he meant frustrated, or embarrassed by a clothing tag when he meant annoyed. Then one day he watched a goalie let a ball go between his legs, yelled “he must be so embarrassed!”, and then accepted my high-five for getting it right.

Here some recent efforts of vocabulary works in progress:

Me: “What did you share at sharing time today?”

Simon: “I talked about Captain Underpants. But I left out the part where Doctor Diaper thought he pooped in his diaper. I thought that might be a little tacky for the girls.”

Close! The joke about pooping in a diaper is tacky, but he doesn’t quite have the syntax nailed down.

Simon: “Mommy, James is on level 6 in Lexia!” (Lexia is a game designed to help children learn to read.)

Me: “Good! I bet you are happy for him.”

Simon: “Yeah…. I want to go on Lexia so I can congratulate to the next level.”

We’re still working on the difference between “congratulate” and “graduate”. I’m not helping as much as I should because… well, because it sounds cute when he says it.

And the pièce de résistance of vocabulary building in action? Simon watches a blown soccer play, either a failed block or a pass to no one, jumps up and yells:

“That’s a tragesty!”

Honestly, as it was both a travesty and tragedy, I’m not only not correcting him on this one, I might just start using the word myself. I’ve witnessed a lot of tragesties in my day.

One Response to “Vocabulary Drill”

  1. Amanda says:

    When we were babies my mom used to read out loud to us whatever she was reading–the newspaper, her psychology textbook, whatever. She just figured it was good for kids to hear vocabulary. We turned out ok! And she never used baby talk either, she talked to us like people. If she used a word we didn’t understand she explained what it means. And part of the joy of kids learning is having them put words together into cool neologisms. I love “tragesty!”

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