Trying to keep up with my eight-year-old friend Alexa’s rapid fire recollection of her science experiment was a mental challenge. She was so excited about the hands-on experience she’d had with a peanut butter sandwich representing the earth’s crust and core. When it came to describing land faults, she rattled, “Then we cut the sandwich oblique and smooshed it together . . .” Of course, when she finished the experiment, she got to eat the sandwich, oozing lava and all. 

Wow! Alexa didn’t just say, “We cut the sandwich,” or “We cut it on a slant,” or even “We cut it diagonally.” She used the word oblique — having a slanting position or direction. What a great word. Not one we’d expect from such a young child.

I am often delighted by the vocabulary of homeschooled children. Because our children read so much and because they’re exposed to adult vocabulary far more than peer vocabulary, their vocabulary is usually advanced. Their advanced vocabulary isn’t necessarily revealed in testing, however (not that it needs to be). While curriculum counseling, I noticed something when some moms who chose to use standardized tests for their children would come to me with questions. Their child’s comprehension score would be higher than their vocabulary score. How is that possible?

Well, our children learn vocabulary in context. They know how to use a word correctly because they’ve read it or heard it surrounded by the written or spoken information that gives clues to its meaning. However, they don’t necessarily know how to choose its meaning from a multiple choice question. As far as I’m concerned they don’t need to. In fact, the college entrance SATs have changed vocabulary testing in the past few years. Now vocabulary is tested in context. 

We could come to the conclusion we don’t need to teach vocabulary to our children. And, as I suspected, when I checked one of my favorite homeschooler’s catalogs, there wasn’t a single vocabulary resource. That makes sense if our children are prolific readers and if we have a substantial vocabulary.  

I suppose if we score in the “hot, hot, hot” range in the Reader’s Digest “Word Power,” we don’t need to. If we score in the “mild” or “warm” range, we might want to consider it. I had to look up the word “oblique,” since it’s not part of my vocabulary, to make sure it wasn’t just another word for diagonally.  I can certainly improve my vocabulary. Maybe we all can.

The most enjoyable way for me to teach vocabulary in the early years is to use the vocabulary I want my children to learn. For example, even a two-year-old is able to use the word “assistance” instead of “help.” It’s all a matter of parroting. If we want to be deliberate about teaching vocabulary, we can make a game of it.

We can choose three words a week and as a family use those words as many times as possible. By the end of the week our children will know and be able to use their new vocabulary. I know families who have used vocabulary programs which offer a random list of words each week. Many of their children retained little of the vocabulary by the end of the year, because they never incorporated those words into everyday usage.

I’ve never considered vocabulary programs using a random list of words each week very useful. Yet, I do believe programs which teach Latin and Greek words are definitely useful. Even if we don’t use these programs as designed when our children are very young, we can still use the words in our “three words a week” game. In a few more years we can use the resource as the publisher intended.One such program is English From the Roots Up, a program that uses index cards, making it interactive.

Children as young as seven can begin learning Latin and Greek roots. Another interactive approach to vocabulary is the card game Rummy Roots. However, don’t let the fact that it’s a game fool us into thinking it’s a child’s game. It’s advertised for eight to adult. The young child would need to use only the first couple of levels. If we don’t frustrate our child by pushing him to higher levels too soon, we can use this game for years to come.   

If we’re looking for a workbook approach, allowing our child to work independently, check out Words On the Vine for ages 10 to 12 or grades five to eight. It contains 36 vocabulary units on root words. Remember, however, once our child’s nose is lifted from the book, we need to engage her in using her new words in conversation.

A resource to consider for building a teen’s vocabulary, especially one who is college bound, is “Vocabulary from the Classical Roots.” There are five books in this series. Another program is Jensen’s Vocabulary containing 1,000 words with Greek and Latin roots.

Many of us may find we never need to use a resource or curriculum for teaching vocabulary. We may never even “teach” vocabulary. Yet, if we are weak in this area or want to help advance our child’s vocabulary beyond our current level, there are certainly resources to use and ways we can do this. The above are only a few.    

It’s not only hearing an eight-year-old’s perky vocabulary that’s exciting. Engaging our teenager in adult level conversation with the appropriate vocabulary is equally exciting and gratifying. The ability to know and choose the precise words needed to communicate effectively will serve our children well.

c. Bethany Bennett.