Parents and Schools Working Together

We can most likely agree that there is no harder job in the world than being a parent. There is no playbook anyone hands you to study from. You can’t Google how to do it. There are no tests you can take. What you can do, however, is take heart and realize that there are a lot of ways that you can help your child succeed in school, even as they enter those difficult, and sometimes turbulent, teenage years. In the area of vocabulary acquisition, which is connected to every subject they study in school, and by extension, reading, you can truly make a difference and be a positive role model through some very simple, yet meaningful actions outside of the classroom.

In my last blog entry, I listed a seminal study by Hart& Risely (1995), in which children as young as 6 months old were studied over a span of two years. The children who were exposed to the richest language over those first few years of life did better on later reading achievement (Pressly, 2006).

That’s all well and good, you may ask, but my child is in high school now—a (gulp), teenager. How can I possibly affect any real change now? Isn’t it the job of schools to teach my child to learn vocabulary and develop reading comprehension?

Well yes, and no. It is my job, and our job as educators and school systems, to provide your child with the highest quality education possible. I take my job very seriously, and devote countless hours to designing lessons that will allow your child to grow as a student, and hopefully as a person. I understand that each of my students is an individual, and I make sure that I am reaching each student where they are, setting the bar high, and readjusting when necessary.

However, there are many important and valuable ways that you can assist me at home in supporting your child’s vocabulary and reading comprehension growth. Although much of the educational research has focused upon younger students, there have been some studies done on the older learner (4th through 12th grade). There is much to look at in the research that bodes well for parental modeling, guidance, and support in the area of literacy. You absolutely can make a big difference in the educational life of your child!

As adolescents enter the later grade-school and high school years, sometimes their motivation to read wanes. This is why it is important to try to harness your child’s interests and direct those interests toward finding reading material that they will enjoy. “Authentic” reading material, or the kinds of things that like reading about, can be found anywhere, and not just in a book. The internet, which, let’s face it, is probably where your older child will spend a majority of the time “reading” things, is a treasure trove of possibilities.

Do not overlook the power of multi-media. One can find as much quality reading material online as almost anywhere else today. Does your child love cars? How about this site? Is science an interest? Kids Discover Magazine is a wonderful online source where you can download free apps. Is fashion important to your child? How about Seventeen Magazine? Lots of my students love to read about animals and Ranger Rick is a fun site for students of all ages. Here is a site that lists a lot more online magazines for students. I jokingly tell my students that I don’t care what they are reading–as long as they are. I’ve had kids bring in cereal boxes that we’ve read sometimes. The point is, the student should be reading what they want as often as they can, and enjoying the process. It will hopefully transfer new knowledge and skills along the way, and increase the motivation to learn.

You can encourage life-long reading in your son or daughter through modeling that behavior at home. Parents have a major role to play in the reading life of their child. Simple activities, such as finding books that examine shared hobbies or interests, or through discussion of articles in the newspaper or magazines can help immensely.

For example, if you and your child are interested in sports, you could find articles about your favorite players or teams, cut them out, and put them on your refrigerator door. You could ask your son or daughter to read the article, and then discuss it together. Ask them questions about what they read and their opinions.

Or, you could go to the library to look for all kinds of books  about anything they may be interested in. The public library here in Old Bridge is a fantastic resource. You will not only find a huge selection of children’s and young adult literature in every genre, but there are also numerous books on tape, not to mention, great programs for students like book club discussions.

Those are just a couple of easy ways to support your child’s literacy growth. Perhaps you do these things already (good for you!). Listed below are many more ways you can not only enhance your son or daughter’s vocabulary strength, but also at the same time, build up your child’s motivation to read and the real possibility that you will encourage them to become life-long learners. It really is never too late.

Tips to Get Your Child Reading and Developing a Robust Vocabulary:

  1.  Watch high quality programming with your child. Young children who watch informational programming instead of cartoons, situational comedies, and other kinds of commercial television develop a better vocabulary (Pressley, p. 231).
  2. Encourage reading at home. Take your child to the library and model taking out books
  3. Tell jokes that use wordplay. Tell stories using interesting words.
  4. Be a word collector. Make it a Saturday or Sunday dinner ritual to share a new or interesting word you have learned and have your child do the same.
  5. Play word games in the car, like hot potato using synonyms or antonyms. For example, pick a word to begin (hot), take turns thinking of synonyms (warm, blazing, roasting, scorching).
  6. Play (board) word games at home for fun. Boggle, Scrabble, Scattegories, Upwords are all fun games to play, but there are so many more to choose from.
  7. Give your child gift certificates to bookstores and subscribe to magazines suited to their interests.
  8. Clip interesting articles from the newspaper of interest and put them on your refrigerator. Discuss them at your leisure.
  9. Take your kids to places you may not visit very often. Plays, zoos, museums, historical sites etc. will expose your child to new experiences and words.
  10. Just talk! Exposure to words through conversation is how we learn much of our vocabularies. Turn off the tv, shut down the computer, and talk about things. Try to use a more mature and varied vocabulary.
  11. Listen to books on tape while driving in the car. You can borrow them from the library (Old Bridge Library has an extensive collection).
  12. Help your child with their weekly vocabulary by using those words throughout the week in your daily language and speaking.
  13. Model reading at home. Children and adolescents who see their parents read will be more likely to emulate that behavior themselves.

Go for it and good luck!


Vocabulary: This is How We Do It…and Why

Think back to when you were in school. How many times do you remember being asked to look up vocabulary words in the dictionary on a Monday, told to write down the definitions, identify the part of speech, and then write sentences for homework the same day? You were then given boring worksheets to fill-out all week long as either a classwork or homework assignment, and tested on those words by Friday. I will safely assume that there is not one of us (I include myself) that have not had that experience. The problem is, that is probably one of the least effective ways to learn new vocabulary, especially for students who may have cognitive disabilities. Research has shown that learning new words and understanding what they mean are quite important to the success of your child and his or her ability to read and comprehend text:

 The Studies Show…

  • In a seminal study about vocabulary acquisition, Hart and Risely (1995), studied 42 families from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and the language (vocabulary) that the children in each family were exposed to. It was determined over the span of two years, starting from the ages of 6-9 months, that depending on the family, the children who were exposed to the most and richest language in the first three years of life did better on later reading achievement.


  • The National Reading Panel report (2000) names vocabulary acquisition as important to reading comprehension. The report also identifies the importance of having a balanced approach when addressing vocabulary instruction.


  • Nagy and Anderson (1984) postulate that the average high school student knows between 25,000 and 50, 000 words, and the average student learns about 3,000-4,000 words a year (Robinson, McKenna, & Conradi, 2012, p. 118).


  •  The more words one knows, the greater the correlation with positive school performance (Blachowicz, Fisher, Ogle, &Watts-Taffe, 2006).


  • Starting in 2014-2015, students in New Jersey will be tested through PARCC exams (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), where they will be expected to not only choose correct meanings of words, but identify the words in the reading passage that helped them figure out the meaning of those particular words in the context that they were used. (Overturf, 2013).

How Your Children Learn About Words in My Class…

Since the passage of the No Child left Behind Act (2001, 2002), vocabulary instruction has been noted as one of the five elements of evidence-based reading instruction, the others being phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension (Pressley, 2006, p. 220). Specifically, in the classroom, which is the domain of teachers, it is important to impart as much knowledge as is humanly possible about “words.”

I consider myself a “word-conscious” teacher. I look for those “teachable moments” in the classroom when I can focus on a new or difficult word, or perhaps an idiom that we have come across in a story during guided reading lessons, and make sure my students understand it. I believe in having a print-rich classroom environment. I maintain a library of books, where the students have access to all genres on many different reading levels. I also model using more “sophisticated” language in my everyday speech. In short, I want my students to interact with words at all times, and the greater the exposure to words, the better the likelihood that they will internalize the meanings. The more they internalize and acquire knowledge of words, the better readers they become. The better readers they become, the better they will do in school.

When you enter my classroom, the first thing you may notice is that my walls are filled with words. Most of them are the vocabulary words we have studied throughout the year. Those words are posted on the wall only after the students complete an extensive, step-by-step process, whereby they interact with the words in meaningful ways. Research has determined that in order for children to fully grasp a word’s meaning, they must have repeated exposure (Nagy and Scott, 2000).


My students learn new vocabulary words after days of study which includes:

  • Putting the definitions into their own words after being given the formal definition
  •  Using the words orally in sentences, as well as writing them (only after a few days of  word practice—when they can more fully have an understanding of the word’s  meaning).
  •  Finding synonyms and antonyms for the word
  •  Finding word “chunks” if possible
  •  Drawing a picture to symbolize the words,


As a culminating activity, the students are then asked to write the word and its definition on poster board for display. I have them draw a picture that represents the vocabulary term. For example, if the vocabulary term is “pedestrian”, the student may draw a picture of a person walking. This year, one of our words was “cultivate”, and one of the students drew a beautiful garden with a farmer using a hoe and a rake to “symbolize” what a farmer must do when he or she “cultivates” the ground for planting. I also use those vocabulary words during the year in my lessons, and give high praise, and even “extra credit” on vocabulary tests to those students who I find either speaking or writing one of those words in class assignments. One of my favorite moments from last year’s class was when a student, whose first language was not English, used the word “vivid” correctly while speaking to me, many months after we had studied that particular word. She had a grin from ear-to-ear when I sang her praises in front of the entire room. You cannot believe how proud and happy the students are when they use one of those words correctly and I point it out!

Mnemonics are also a powerful way to have students learn and remember vocabulary words, especially very difficult ones like SAT words. We have probably all used mnemonics at some point in our lives to remember information. For example, the acronym HOMES is used to remember the great lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Eerie, Superior). I use this strategy throughout the year for some more difficult words. In numerous studies over the last 20 years, (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2000) found that remembering “key words” with pictures increases the memory of children with learning disabilities. “Key words” would be words that sound similar to a vocabulary word. The students are then asked to think of a picture (or draw one) that illustrates the keyword. This way, when they hear the difficult vocabulary word, they think of the “keyword” with the picture attached in their minds. They are then better able to retrieve the vocabulary word’s definition. It is important to have the students, themselves, think up the keywords and pictures themselves for better results.

For example, let’s use the word numismatist. Perhaps you may think of the words new mist, which sounds similar to the vocabulary word. You may then picture coins on a beach with a “new mist” rolling in. This might be a fun and easier way to remember that the word numismatist means a “coin collector.”

Board games are a fun way to learn and study words that aren’t part of the given vocabulary words for the year. I have plenty of days built in for some tried and true favorites like BOGGLE, SCRABBLE, RATTLED, WORDO, etc, which can be accessed on the web as well, to play outside of school. I also play “Charades” with vocabulary words. In “Charades”, the students team up and try to “act out” the vocabulary words in front of the class, which tries to guess what they are. It usually winds up being an extremely fun lesson, full of laughter, that doesn’t seem like “work” to the kids.

Through the use of technology, students have access to a myriad of vocabulary games either on the Internet or on their IPAD— and yes—even on their cellphones. In my classroom, I have access to BRAINPOP, where they can go to find all sorts of games that relate to reading and vocabulary acquisition. There are countless apps that feature games that focus on vocabulary words, as well as fun ways to study words like PSAT or SAT words (I will post some apps that you can access for your child at home at the conclusion of this blog entry). Since the district invested in IPAD’s last year, we use some of them in the classroom as well. The proliferation of apps is quite exciting, and many of the best ones are free. Besides promoting a deeper understanding of words, their spellings, and their definitions, games make learning vocabulary seem like more fun than drudgery.

Additionally, in order to promote incidental learning of words, I consciously use words and phrases that are a bit more complicated during class discussions, but immediately use easier-to-understand terminology to “define” the less-known terms. For example, if I want to pass out supplies for a project, I will say, “I am going to distribute, or pass out, the poster board.” When I want to call groups up to the horseshoe table work on a lesson, I will say, “Let’s gather, or come together, at the horseshoe.” According to Lane and Allen (2010), “dumbing-down,” or using “simplistic” terms while speaking to students stunts vocabulary development. I set the bar very high for all of my students, and I firmly adhere to this practice of mindfully using sophisticated vocabulary in the classroom daily.

As you can see, my classroom is always buzzing with words. Whether students are drawing symbolic representations of vocabulary terms, using the IPAD to play word games, or listening to more sophisticated words during daily instruction, rest assured that my goal is to expand and enhance their knowledge of words in order for them to meet with success.

Next Week: How parents and guardians can enhance their child’s vocabulary and reading comprehension, and increase motivation to read.


 Five Apps for Vocabulary Development at Home:

  1. study over 400 vocabulary words through using flashcards.
  2. MindsnacksOver 500 words and phrases and games that use antonyms as well.
  3. Hangman Free HD-Every kid’s favorite word game
  4. Ruzzle Adventure-word games that reinforce spelling and vocabulary
  5. Wordmess based on WORDLES, this game will expand your child’s vocabulary




Do you know what YOLO means? If you have a teenager, chances are you have heard this acronym-turned-word cross their lips, without knowing what it means. Never fear, you can now look it up in the Oxford dictionary. You can also find out what “listicle” and “binge-watch” means, as they are new additions as well.


I ask about your knowledge of these words for a reason (making you feel old was not one of them, I promise). My reason connects to a subject that affects not only your children, but you as well, as their parents and guardians. The subject is vocabulary, and in this blog, I will talk about its acquisition and importance to your child’s education.


Words are the building blocks of knowledge. Understanding what words mean allows us to receive and send messages. Word knowledge is what allows us to make sense of written text, in all of its forms. Words are to reading as ingredients are to recipes. In order to understand any text, one must understand most of the words as “put together” on the page just as one must properly include all of the correct ingredients, in the correct order to produce the desired dish.


If you did not know what “listicle” meant, and read something that referenced it, you may have not understood what the author was talking about. In that case, what would you do? Would you have skipped over it, and read on, hoping to make sense of it at some point? Would you have immediately stopped and looked it up (the kids can do this on their cell phones in about 20 seconds, did you know that?). Would you have looked to see if you could find a “chunk” of the word that you knew and attempt to make some kind of connection to the word you read, like a pre-fix, suffix, or root word? Might you have read the sentences around the word to figure it from the “context clues”?

Believe it or not, all of those strategies mentioned in the previous paragraph are what your students are taught to do in my classroom from day one when they do not understand what they have read. For many readers who struggle, teaching various strategies such as using context clues or chunking may help.

In the classroom, when students come across unfamiliar words, they are taught some strategies to determine the meaning. I will model the thinking that I want them to emulate whenever they come across words that they don’t understand, especially when it makes a difference to their comprehension of the text. Modeling is a way to talk out loud about the thinking I want my students to do. I will give an example of how I might “model” two of the strategies, using context clues and using word-part clues as examples:

“Today class, we will learn about how to use context clues, or use the words around the unfamiliar word, to help determine its meaning. For example, in the sentence, “Ian was so irate that he wanted to throw something,” if you did not know what word the word irate was, you could try to figure it out from the surrounding words, or the context of the sentence. We know from life experience that when you feel like you want to “throw something”, you may be angry. Therefore, you could gather from the context that irate means angry.”

“We can also look for word-part clues, which could be a root word, pre-fix, or suffix, to see if you can figure out the meaning by disassembling, or taking apart a word, and reassembling, or putting the word back together. For example, if you do not know what the word transcontinental means, but you recognize a chunk of the word, such as, continent, you may deduce, or think, that the word has something to do with a continent. Additionally, if you know the prefix trans means across, as well as recognizing the word continent, you may realize that the word transcontinental means across a continent.”


These are just two examples of how students are guided in the classroom in the area of vocabulary understanding and acquisition. There are many more. However, vocabulary and its attainment has been a process from practically the day he or she was born. It is also a process that is never-ending, and learning new vocabulary is not only the domain of the classroom and important to the success of your child’s reading ability, but can be greatly enhanced outside of the classroom as well. That’s where you, the parents or guardians come in…and I will discuss the ways you can contribute to your son or daughter’s vocabulary acquisition in upcoming blog entries.

Next week: We will look at the way I teach my students to develop vocabulary and why having a robust and ever-growing vocabulary is essential to your child’s ability to comprehend the written word.