Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.

Reading Minds

Vocabulary and Comprehension

Sometimes words get in the way…

Posted Jan 30, 2018

Nancy Knapp
Source: Nancy Knapp

University of Georgia undergraduate education classes are tutoring reading skills with kindergarteners this spring in a local high poverty school. We are trying to support the children as they get on the road to reading with a lot of one-on-one help. Teaching kindergarteners to read this early is now the norm in most schools. It is the result of the downward compression in the curriculum that occurred decades ago in response to state testing. The thought seems to be that, the sooner we start teaching kids to read, the better off they will be later, when the tests matter. Whether this is true or not is another blog for another time.

When working with children this young, particularly ones who are struggling, we find many without the requisite skills needed to begin to learn to read. Their struggles make us appreciate all the obvious and less obvious issues involved in learning to read. Lately, we are struck by how a child’s lack of vocabulary can get in the way of reading (or listening) with comprehension. If you have ever tried to read a jargon-filled book on an unfamiliar topic, you know exactly how vocabulary can get in the way of comprehension and how vocabulary is aligned closely with what you know about a subject.

Pretty much by definition kindergarteners do not have a large vocabulary—they are only 5 or 6 years after all. This lack of vocabulary is likely to get in the way of comprehension for most of them at least some of the time. Even simple, easy-to-read words such as fig or jig, if they show up in a text, may not be understood. Unfortunately, the variation in breadth of vocabulary among preschoolers and kindergarteners is also quite large, though just how much variation one might expect to find in an ordinary classroom is unclear.

Early studies, such as one by Hart and Risley sampled the language children heard from their caregivers and the language that the children used in conversation. They found a two-fold difference in vocabulary between economically advantaged and disadvantaged 3-year-olds.  A better-designed recent study by Mayor and Plunket observed that 2 ½-year-olds in the bottom quartile in vocabulary size had fewer than 900 words while their peers in the top quartile had twice as many. So, big variations in vocabulary size across children at school entry and before are the norm.

The good news is that schooling seems to grow children’s vocabularies—estimates are that children learn 8 or 9 words per day throughout the school years, or maybe just 2 or 3 per day if you discard all those prefixed and suffixed words. The socioeconomic gap in vocabulary eclipses a bit by the end of elementary school, thanks, in part to reading. Throughout life, if we stay avid readers, our vocabulary continues to grow. Indeed, maintaining the reading habit throughout life has an overall positive and protective impact on our aging brain.

Vocabulary is important for comprehension. The correlation between vocabulary and reading comprehension is somewhere between .35-.75 in elementary school. Children with larger vocabularies simply understand what they read better. Talking about the difficult vocabulary in a book ahead of time helps children understand a text.

So, what about our kindergarteners? What can we do for them? First, we can make sure to scan texts for words that children might not know.  To illustrate, we pulled How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World (Priceman, 1996) off our bookshelf. This is a typical picture book that an adult might read to a child (or that kindergarteners might attempt to read to themselves). Selecting a random page from the middle of it, we see the sentence, “Sri Lanka is a pear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean. The best cinnamon in the world is made from the bark of the native kurundu tree… If a leopard is napping beneath the tree, be very quiet” (italics ours). Wow, we found lots of potentially unknown words here, and it is easy to see how children might have difficulty. So, when we read aloud, we can pause and provide a quick, kid-friendly definition perhaps (e.g., “pear-shaped—you know how a pear is smaller at the top than it is at the bottom? That’s pear-shaped.”). We can point to the picture of the napping leopard on the page (“Look at that leopard lying there with one eye closed!”). We can have children repeat the new words. The next time children see the words, they will have some minimal concept of them, a vague familiarity perhaps. (This level of word knowledge is called frontier knowledge, akin to “I’ve heard that word before!”). From this point onward, children will build their knowledge and vocabulary related to these ideas.

With some children, our support of vocabulary will need to have an intensity that follows them throughout school. We will need to make sure to engage in conversations that challenge their vocabulary. We can use dime words (less frequent words) instead of nickel words (common words) when we talk to them (“What an incredible din!” instead of “It’s too noisy!”). Over time, this is effective for improving children’s vocabularies. We can try to foster word consciousness and a love for finding the interesting and perfect word. Eventually, with the accumulation of experiences from reading, schooling, and the home, vocabulary will not be a major impediment to reading comprehension on an ordinary basis.


Priceman, M. (1996). How to make an apple pie and see the world. NY: Knopf.