Words and their meanings are the building blocks of literacy development. They're the key to children's comprehension of stones and information books. Just about any fun experience, from learning-center activities to a field trip to sharing picture books, offers many opportunities to build children's vocabulary.

Children who acquire a substantial vocabulary are often able to think more deeply, express themselves better, and actually learn new things more quickly. Generally speaking, the larger a child's vocabulary, the better a reader he will be. This may be partly because children who know a lot of words have probably been read to more than children who know fewer words. But there are other reasons, as well. It turns out that the more words a child knows, the more words he'll be able to recognize when he sees them in print. As children learn to sound out words, they'll reach into their store of words to figure out what they mean.

Building Phonemic Awareness

There's yet another reason why children's vocabulary words relate so strongly to reading achievement. As children begin to pick up new words, they'll begin to distinguish similarities and differences between them. You'll often hear children make alliterative rhymes with words, like "bibbily bobbily boo," or other rhymes and rhythms. As they experiment with words, they begin to focus on the individual speech sounds within them, breaking words into their sounds and blending them back together again. This ability to hear, segment, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words (known as phonemic awareness) is strongly predictive of reading and spelling success.

Creating a world of words, where children are encouraged to talk, to ask questions, and to explore their understanding in new ways, creates an environment that enriches what children hear.

Encouraging Words

You can help children build vocabulary by stretching words out, saying them slowly enough so that children can hear their component sounds. Starting now will give children plenty of time to develop and practice this skill on their own. By kindergarten and first grade, they'll be moving beyond phonemic awareness to mapping these sounds onto letter names-the process known as phonics. Research has consistently shown that all of these skills are related to children's vocabulary development and reading achievement.

Keep on Reading

Explore different types of books, formats, and subjects. Note and savor the interesting words that you encounter. Talk about what these words mean and help children pronounce them. And remember to talk, talk, talk during the school day. Conversations with children are a great way to organically introduce new words.