Why I Don’t Teach Vocabulary Words

Why I Don't Teach Vocabulary | RaisingArrows.netThis post is going to win me points with some and others will boo and hiss me out of the room.  I’m going to say it anyway…

I don’t teach vocabulary.

No little index cards or notebooks or lists here.

Why?  Because I don’t believe it works.

*GASP*

Personal story:  When I was in 4th grade, we had these things called Power Words every week.  This was a fancy name for Vocabulary Words (because no one likes the sound of “vocabulary words”).  The ONLY word I remember from all those months of Power Words is this one…

REGURGITATE

That’s right.  I only remember an alternate word for vomit.  And the only reason I remember that word was because my friend Erin, who was a year older than me, told me about this Power Word when she was in 4th grade.

So, from the beginning of my homeschooling career, I have balked at the thought of vocabulary words.  Sure, I’ve tried to introduce vocabulary words into our day in the traditional way because that’s what every good homeschool mom does, but it never lasted and my children seemed to have the same adverse reaction to the idea I had.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that vocabulary lessons done in the traditional way are unnecessary and do not accomplish the desired result of broadening a child’s vocabulary.

However, make no mistake, I believe children should have an extensive vocabulary.  I just choose to take a different approach.  Here’s a better way to help children build their vocabularies without dreary lessons and endless lists…

Build Your Child's Vocabulary | RaisingArrows.net

*Read great books – We all know the benefits of reading great books.  Give your children good books to read and read good books to them.  The best books use big words and big concepts in a palatable way.   I love this list from Charlotte Mason Home Education that lines out twaddle-free books by age.

*Use big words throughout the day – It has always been my philosophy that children often can handle much meatier conversation than we give them credit for.  It is important we do our best to add to our vocabulary as adults so when in conversation with our children, we can fill their ears with interesting words.

*Define the words you use as you speak – Before you imagine me going throughout my day sounding like a walking dictionary, allow me to give you an example of what I mean here.  Suppose I tell my 4 year old, “Cleaning up the living room would be beneficial for everyone in the house.”  More than likely, he is not going to know what the word “beneficial” means, but I can follow that sentence up with this one, “It is good for everyone if this room is tidy.”  These two sentences together offer a new vocabulary word and the definition in conjunction with one another in a setting in which they make sense.  Your child will make natural vocabulary connections and begin to use these words themselves because they understand the meaning of the word.

*Reward them for using big words – No, I don’t mean you give them a treat every time they use a big word.  In our family, we have a funny little tradition when someone uses a big word.  We do a sort of flashing motion with our hands and say, “Big Word, Big Word!”  We have a good laugh about it and move on with our conversation.  You could “reward” your children by playing a game around the dinner table asking everyone to say a big word.  You can play a game like Balderdash where children learn new words and their meanings in a funny and interesting way.  The reward is in the enjoyment of using big words as a family!

*Teach your child how to use a dictionary – Not all of you will have a child who reads the dictionary like my 12 year old daughter, but teaching them how to use a dictionary is crucial to helping them broaden their vocabulary because they have the ability to look up any word they do not know the meaning of.  Here’s a quick list of some websites you can utilize to teach dictionary skills in a fun way:
Teaching Basic Dictionary Skills
Dictionary Parts
Dictionary Scavenger Hunts/Games

*Teach your child how to use a thesaurus – I have a special place in my heart for the thesaurus, not because it sounds like a verbose dinosaur, but because it is so incredibly useful to anyone who wants to make their writing as beautiful and lyrical as possible.  A thesaurus is a treasure trove of synonyms and antonyms that will give your child just the right word he or she is looking for.  Here are some websites that will help your children navigate their own thesaurus:
Teaching Kids to Use a Thesaurus
Using a Thesaurus Worksheet (make your own based on this idea!)

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55 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Teach Vocabulary Words

  1. I LOVE this! Thank you, Amy! Vocab was one of my eldest son’s biggest struggles when he went to Christian school. I am in love with your tips, and, honestly, I feel better knowing that I’m not the only homeschooling mama who doesn’t teach vocabulary :)

  2. I’m in complete agreement. Vocabulary words are pointless when they’re unmoored from contexts that make them meaningful. The more I homeschool, the less I see the value in pretty much anything the schools did regularly. ;-) I asked my 8 year old the other day if he was able to eat his lunch (because he’d been sick, not because he usually has a choice) and he said “Yes, ma’am, I was able to consume a large portion of it.” He doesn’t usually talk in such a formal way, so don’t think I’m some weird Victorian mother or something, all laced up in whalebone corsets or anything. But that *did* illustrate nicely that you don’t need “vocabulary” to have a vocabulary full of useful words. What you need, and all you need, is time with books and intelligent people to converse with.

  3. No formal vocabulary lessons here with our crew of 7 children under 12. However, our children are often complimented on their large vocabularies. For us the key contributors appear to be that we use big words ourselves and define them as we use them. The example you gave for defining a word as you speak is how I have learned to naturally speak with all of my children, including the toddlers. We don’t talk down to our children. These seem to be much bigger factors than reading great books, though we do read from a NKJV Bible twice a day, no children’s Bibles, and they hear books read that are definitely above their grade levels. As the saying goes, “So much more is caught than taught.”

    Now, if the teacher doesn’t have a very robust vocabulary herself, then the formal vocabulary lessons for her might make some sense, with a deliberate decision to introduce 1 new word into her speech each week. Some conscious thought can be a bit help even without learning new words. So often, the first resort is to say that everything is big or huge. Many people know the words gigantic or tremendous; they just never use them. And even for the adults, reading good books, and perhaps even better, listening to good vocabulary would be of help too.

  4. I don’t either and use some of the methods instead that you use above, except with s severely dyslexic child we skip the dictionary and thesaurus use! Great post, thanks! Jenni

  5. Great thoughts. And I don’t mean to be contentious, just want to throw out another situation.
    I did personally enjoy vocabulary words, as I’d be so taken up in a story,a and was decent at context clues so I wouldn’t stop to look things up.

    And I have a child with nonverbal learning disability, which means nothing comes intuitively, and you have to introduce everything from the names of the kitchen appliances to what a waitress is and what she does, so we have to be purposeful.

    A significant portion of SAT is vocabulary, so my highschoolers like to review. In fact, they asked I get Marie’s Words.

    Thank you for your good encouragement. And in most circumstances it works very well!~ Thank you for your great perspective and not letting us get caught in a trap of making it too complicated!

  6. Awesome post! I agree completely. The vocab notebook gets left to collect dust on our shelves here. My teen daughters are voracious readers and writers and whenever they come across an interesting word they add it to their “Nifty Words” list—something they started on their own so they can remember the cool, new word. I believe that for words to become second nature it needs to be naturally used throughout the day—like you shared. Forcing the learning of anything almost guarantees that the information will be lost as soon as the test is taken!

  7. I am so glad you shared this. Just the other day I read an article by a home schooled teen who mentioned that her parents gave lots and lots of vocabulary lesson…which is super, but it pushed me into a fit of “homeschool doubt.” I don’t believe I have ever taught a single vocab lesson, and my oldest is in 8th grade! But we do do all those things you mentioned, well, most of them anyway. Thanks – I feel better now. :)

    I especially loved your comment on the thesaurus – I write poetry, and there is no better tool to have around!

  8. You made me laugh out loud with your power word :-) this is a great and practical post, I enjoy reading what other homeschoolers are doing and this post helped me put things into perspective. Thanks you for your words of wisdom

    Have a wonderful day
    Love
    Renee

  9. The only objection I would voice for this approach is the use of the term “big word”. There are lots of useful “little” words out there that may be less often used and provide shades of meaning that would expand the tool box available to growing minds. I had one particular nemesis at work who would call me out for using so many “big words”. I started paying attention and realized that many of these were not actually long words, just ones that he did not understand. I ended up having to dumb down communications accordingly. Best wishes on a noble effort.

  10. Amy thanks for sharing your ideas. We use some of these in our home. I was looking for some way of introducing how to use the dictionary without making it a boring lesson. This will help. I love to just look up words in the dictionary just for fun. I want my kids to love and enjoy words as much as I do.

    • One way we got our older to use the dict. more was to buy a really old one. Then when we look up word, we compare the word meaning to the new one. Sometimes it is interesting how a word meant something else at one time, or how a word has been expanded upon for modern conversation. Some new dict. don’t even have the old words we find in some of our literature, so to find the meaning we have to use the old version.

  11. Did you know that I was actually re-thinking my stance on vocabulary and pulling out those index cards and vocabulary worksheets?

    What about writing down vocabulary words as they come across them in their literature readings? Do you consider that vain regurgitation as well?

  12. In my years as a homeschooled student, I believe we may have dabbled in vocabulary words a few times, but never for very long. I remember feeling sorry for my friends who had to just study lists of random words. The key in our household was that we read many great books, and were expected to look up any word we did not know. It takes discipline to do so, and I was the child who had to be told most often to stop and look something up, but I am now grateful for it. Whenever we asked what a word meant, in any context, my parents would reply “get the dictionary!”. It became a family joke once we were all grown, as we still look up words regularly. My siblings and I now have large vocabularies, and I can’t count the times I’ve been asked by a peer to please explain what I just said.

    If you have an ereader, it is even easier these days to look up the words in your books – just highlight and click!

  13. We have used the same approach as you stated. We found that families that talk down toward the children, have the children that have the smallest vocab, while those that speak normal or even add larger words have children that have a huge vocab. This last summer I gave my two oldest the pre-SAT and found that they scored lower than I liked on some of the vocab areas. When I went back and we worked the problems together, they got the answers correct. So this last year we have thrown in Wordly Wise online. I have given them a year to complete it at their own pace. With so much of the SAT being vocab now, I think it will only help the scores. My younger I am not worried about. Only once they are high school age do I think we will implement anything formal for vocab.
    My children read everything we let them have their hands on, but not so much out loud, so we can hear how they are pronouncing the words. So this last month we have also started giving them short stories to read aloud to the family nightly. This has shown to be a great added bonus to the schooling. The younger get to hear more great stories, and The older get to sharpen their skills.
    I so wish we lived closer to you, we always seem to be thinking the same things at the same time and have children the same ages. Something we just can’t find near us:(

  14. Well, you did it again, Amy! You spoke directly to me this morning. I was feeling discouraged about my 1st grader’s vocabulary words and using flash cards and the whole bit. I could tell he wasn’t having it. But he is learning a lot of words through conversations, and he is really good at asking questions. We will be doing Amy Robert’s Method of Vocabulary Building! ;) You are a true servant of God! Thank you and God bless you.

  15. I was pondering having my 9th grader so some sort of vocab lessons earlier this year as a friend was having her 8th-9th grader do them…and it seemed like the thing to do with SATs only a few short years away. So we – son and I – started a video program with SAT words and quizzes to test our knowledge after we learned them. Guess who didn’t miss a work in 5 lessons? And who didn’t do, um, quite as well? LOL He never missed a word! He reads. A lot. From a variety of genres and time periods. I quickly came to the conclusion that READING is THE best way to learn words!

  16. My boys and I have really enjoyed “Vocabulary Cartoons.” They love starting the morning off with one. The book is so well done. It’s taken us 2 years to complete the first one and I’ve just ordered the second.

  17. I love this! I am not currently a home school mom…but I can relate. I had a teacher in fifth grade with a GREAT lesson. It was called “Said is Dead”…the idea was that as we wrote stories we could not use the word “said”. So instead we would say things like “Suzie questioned….or Johnny remarked….or Mary laughed….”. I still think of that when I write things…and that 20 something years ago!

  18. One fun way I like to incorporate big words is “word(s) of the week”. Just for fun, to see how often you can use it in the week. It’s fun for younger kids but I think older kids would have fun picking and “being in charge” of the word of the week. It’s just a fun thing to do. The crazier the word the better. :) And after a week, you should def know all the ways you can use that word and you’ll never forget what it means! We like to do this with spanish words too!

  19. We don’t do regular vocabulary, we do try to read great quality books and listen to audio books. We do use Vocabulary Cartoons (the red smaller size book not the larger one) the kids read and color them. They thoroughly enjoy them and they remember the words since it a fun humorous approach. :) Very low key for us…

  20. Thank you for this post! I can remember doing vocabulary words every week in school. Like yourself, I barely remember any of the specific words. I’ve been dreading doing something like what I was taught with my son. Whenever we use a word he doesn’t know now, we will usually grab the dictionary and show him where to find it and help him read the definition. It may seem a little tedious to some but it is so much better for him. Of course, we don’t always have a dictionary right at hand, so then we just explain what it means. I totally agree with you on this!! Thanks for the link to the Charlotte Mason website as well!!

  21. As a former public school English teacher, I have pushed vocabulary and spelling lists on my girls, but lately I have been rethinking my approach. While I don’t think I could give up vocabulary completely, I have been thinking about ditching the spelling books and just choosing words from their weekly reading and/or having them choose words themselves out of the books they read. This would put the power into their own hands of what words they want to learn more about and keep them working with the dictionary. Of course, their “reading” books are mostly classics that stretch their vocabulary as it is so it should just be an extension of what they are already doing.

  22. Oh, man, I totally agree. When I was still being homeschooled, we had this book that we called the vocab book. Whenever it was mentioned, there would be groans and sarcastic comments. What it was was a miniature dictionary with a bunch of common (supposedly) words defined with an example sentence at the end of each one. Great for a reference book; not so great for a school book. What we had to do was take two or three words (going through in order) and write down the pronunciation and definition, then make our own example sentences to define the words. It was totally boring, and I know that I have a pretty wide vocabulary because I read good books, not because I copied definitions out of a dictionary.
    I also have the same feelings regarding grammar (hides as sticks and stones are thrown) and even spelling. Ever since I was about seven, I’ve been devouring books such as Little House, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, biographies by the scads. I never took formal spelling or grammar courses, and (yes, I’ll admit it) I am not really familiar with all the grammar jargon, but my grammar is excellent and so is my spelling. Why? Because I think that reading well written books that one enjoys causes things to be absorbed unconsciously into the mind. On the one hand, you have a child go through a boring short story picking out all the nouns or all the adverbs, or spelling ‘ramifications’ ten times. On the other hand you have an interesting tale (true or fictional) that keeps the child hooked and as they read they are learning without even knowing it!

    • I halfway agree about grammar, but one caveat I’d have to that is if you want to learn a foreign language, it comes much easier when you have a firm grasp of grammar. My kids and I are in the midst of Mandarin studies, and knowing grammar makes all the difference even though it seemed so irrelevant before.

    • Your grammar (punctuation in your response), isn’t excellent. It’s clear you guess where to put commas. Learning writing, spelling, and grammar skills through reading good literature is an educational theory that was proven not to work. Direct instruction of these skills, along with phonics in primary grades, is necessary to understand how language works. Vocabulary can be learned through context clues while reading, but people need at least four exposures to a word to add it to their receptive vocabulary. More exposure is needed to add a word to expressive vocabulary. Additionally, Greek and Latin roots and prefixes need to be taught directly and memorized, just like multiplication tables or musical notes, to develop word attack strategies. You may have benefitted from reading a great deal, but research proves that a combination of direct snd indirect instruction in vocabulary and grammar is needed.

      • @ Francine — Actually, I don’t guess where to put my commas :) If you could point out places where I’ve used incorrect grammar and/or punctuation I would greatly appreciate it. Otherwise, it doesn’t do much good to just say that I’m guessing where to put my commas.

        • Goodness ladies, we are all on the same side here! We obviously all have our different views about methods of education and that is what makes us great home educators; we are able to custom-tailor our instruction to our children’s needs. What works for one family may not work for another, and that is okay. Let’s remember to appreciate each other’s differences and learn from all the amazingly creative women out there that share our same privilege of being home educators.

  23. This week in church, our pastor was trying to illustrate a point. He made a comment something along the lines of ” not that a six year old will always know the words omnipotent and omniscient but…” my daughter, who is six, turned to me and whispered ” hey! I know what those are, thats how God is all powerful and all knowing.!” The look on her face was a bit offended that someone might think she didn’t understand what those words were and perhaps wonder that other six year olds might not know them. There were a few chuckles heard right around us. We use good vocabulary, and don’t mind taking the time to teach it to our kids. So far, I am not worried about their vocabularies, but if a time comes when I am, I guess we will do what we feel would improve it then. I also skip spelling as a formal subject and just help them on words that they misspell on a regular basis.

  24. This is great Amy! I so agree. I do the same thing as you in using big words in sentences and then offering a second sentence that defines it. My four year old comes out with words that aren’t everyday conversation words like “Mend”, “certainly” and “nutritious” all the time, just from the books we read! :)

  25. Amy, mostly I agree. I do believe, however, that teaching root words IS effective. We’ve done that and I find it helps kids make connections. We also learn Latin–another big help. I see all the time where my kids are making connections and understanding more and more where language comes from. Because we’re Canadian, and also study French, their connections are even richer, because if a word doesn’t have an immediately obvious connection from Latin to English, it often will from Latin to French. I find my kids DO remember this stuff. I did see a neat program recently called Words and Their Stories that told the history of words and explained the words’ connections to synonyms, etc. that looked really good. The whole premise of the program is the failure of the conventional methods of vocabulary study to make the words “stick.” We decided not to take the plunge right now, since we’re pretty happy with the root word and Latin study we’re doing, but it may be something we invest in later on. You can do a trial of the program on their site.

  26. We’v never done vocab in our 18+ yrs of homeschooling. Recently, my 22 yr old son, who has never been an avid reader, was asked by a 26 yr old man “where he got his ten thousand dollar vocabulary from?” My son said, “Excuse me?”
    The man, who is a personal friend of my son, said, “Since you’ve been at our house for the past hour, you have used more interesting words than I have ever heard anyone your age use. Where did you get that ten thousand dollar vocabulary from?”
    My son, who was surprised, said, “Well, um, I was homeschooled.”
    The man looked at his wife, and they both smiled and said, “Well, that certainly confirms our decsion to homeschool then!!”

  27. I agree with this. My daughter is 5 and has an extensive vocabulary just from the read alouds we have done and the fact that I try to use an extensive vocabulary myself when I speak to her (and my son). She has intuitive knowledge of words and can use context clues efficiently. That said, I always feel I can do better, so I recently ordered English from the Roots Up. It’s more for me than for her – with the book, I’ll be able to sneak some extra words into conversation. Like a previous poster commented, a vocabulary program can be beneficial for the parents!

  28. I love this post. This is my first year homeschooling and I started teaching vocabulary words. My daughter hated it. After a month or so, I stopped because she was miserable. She reads a lot anyway and whenever she comes across a word she does not know she will look up the meaning or ask. We use all of the points you mentioned in building a child’s vocabulary. Now that I think about it, this was how my vocabulary grew.

  29. Ah..so refreshing to hear of another homeschool mama who prefers the absorption approach rather than regurgitation. ;) If my kids ask what a word means, I have taught them to go look in the dictionary. Also if they ask how to spell something, same routine. I love the idea of introducing the meaning of the word in a sentence following the first sentence! And we love to read classic books where we can find all manner of wonderful new words to use. :)

  30. We don’t have vocab lessons either.
    My oldest two (10 & 8) have a little notebooks, when they read a word they don’t understand it gets jotted in the notebook and they look up the meaning later and write a definition.

    Seems to be working for us – yesterday my oldest complained of ‘gastric distress’ : )

  31. I totally agree. My children have scored well on vocabulary tests although I have rarely taught it as a subject. When children read and hear good vocabulary being read they will easily and naturally develop a good vocabulary. Using high quality words and proper grammar are two lovely ways of giving your children an educational and career edge.

  32. I completely agree with you and your approach to vocabulary. My sil sent me this article and asked for my in put. Quite a conversation developed. My question and hers is: how do you prove the cold knows the material when you are required to prove that to the board of education or other authority? If you don’t have a workbook too prove it?

    • My particular state does not require testing of this kind. There are vocabulary lists out there that you could periodically verbally test your child with and offer those as “proof”. If you are required to show proof of vocab work via a workbook, then do your best to make those words stick via the suggestions I listed in the post. You can’t change rules, but you can do your best to make sure they actually do what they were intended to do…help your child learn and retain a large variety of words.

  33. I’ve never used them either. Not because I had some aversion to them but just because I never did. I am considering it now, however, realizing my child who has Dyslexia needs it. It’s difficult enough for her to process language (oral, written or otherwise) but she has little comprehension of most of it.

    What you’ve described in the box sounds like the “usual” around here but she has little comprehension of language (other than Japanese). So I think I need to help her.
    I am not sure where to begin though.

    • The etymology of words really is fascinating, so you might want to start with something as simple as Rummy Roots. This is a game that will teach her how the roots of words give you clues to what the word means. :)

      • That makes sense! It’s funny… No matter how many children you’ve successfully homeschooled in the past, there’s always a new “thing” to consider, learn about and adapt to with the rest of the children.

  34. we always read to them above their age level. Sherlock Holmes as a staple from about age 5 on. My husband read them all. Not reading the newer versions of books. We read kiddy books too but they were fed a steady diet of good classics from a young age and it really helped their vocab and speech.