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No Curriculum Needed Vocabulary Lessons

Words, words, words! A variety of research, such as that by the University of Kansas, has demonstrated that the number of words children know dramatically impacts their success in other academic areas. While reading to children is one of the best ways to help them gain a strong vocabulary, at some point it is helpful to study vocabulary words in an intentional way. For older children this is often incorporated as part of English or Reading curricula, but for young children, such as those who have just learned to read, what options are there for learning vocabulary? Students in the early primary grades often do not need a full vocabulary program, but can still benefit from focused work on the meaning of new words. For these children, an easy and effective solution is to create your own simple vocabulary lessons, based on books you are already reading.

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Step One: Simply choose a book that you read to the child. The best books for this purpose are age-appropriate classics that are interesting to your student, because classic books tend to have a greater range of vocabulary (and, of course, the stories themselves are excellent). Chapter books work particularly well, because one chapter can be read per day, making vocabulary work relatively short and simple. For some suggestions of excellent books for all grades, check out or 1000 Good Books List. Plan on reading one section, or chapter, per day.

Step Two: During your weekly planning time, read through each section or chapter that you will be reading with your child, and choose vocabulary words in each chapter that you think your child does not know. The number of vocabulary words can depend on the age and ability of the student, but for new readers a good suggestion is 1-3 words per day. You can simply circle the words in the book, or jot them down for yourself.

Step Three: Write or type out the words on ruled paper, with space under each for the child to copy the word him/herself. An added bonus of this approach is that the child can obtain writing and spelling practice as well, through writing out each word. If you would prefer to type out the words for your child, try using some online ruled paper, which allows you to fill in your own words. Simply go to ZB Fonts Online and click “Get Started”. You will see a variety of lined paper templates, by grade, that you can fill in with your own words and print out for children to practice writing.

Step Four: If the child is able to use a dictionary, help him or her look up the definition for each word. This is a great way to introduce dictionary skills, but it can be quite laborious for very young children. In that case, simply look up the definitions to each word yourself prior to lesson time, and jot down the definitions. Wordsmyth provides an online dictionary with three different levels – Beginner’s, Children’s, and Advanced. For young students, simply choose Beginner’s Dictionary at the top left of the site, type in the vocabulary word, and click “Go” to find simple, easy definitions young children can understand.

It is also helpful to use the words in a sentence for your child, and to give multiple examples so he or she can remember what the vocabulary word means. One of the ruled paper templates at ZB Fonts Online (template 3 for first and second grade) offers a box for children to draw a picture to show the meaning of the word, which can also be a great way for kids to remember the definition.

Step Five: Read the chapter from the book. Before you read, ask the child to listen for the vocabulary words as you are reading, and to tell you when he/she hears one. When you get to one, review the sentence where it is used, along with the definition of the word. Ask the child questions about the word’s meaning, and point out any specific features of how the word is used in context within the story.

Step Six: At the end of the week, review all of the new vocabulary words for that week. Also review all of the vocabulary for the entire book when you have finished reading it. Some fun ideas for reviewing vocabulary:

  • Play a game similar to “Catchphrase”, where an older sibling looks at the word and gives clues (without saying the word itself) about its definition while the younger student guesses which vocabulary word it is.
  • Write each vocabulary word on a large white board, or on individual pieces of paper. Have the words spread out at least 12″ from each other. Give the child a flyswatter. Provide the definition to one of the vocabulary words, and have the child hit the correct word with the flyswatter. Keep a tally of how many he gets right, and provide a special incentive or treat when he reaches a certain number of correct “swats”.
  • Write each vocabulary word on index cards, and then write one-word synonyms on other index cards. Have the child match the vocabulary word to the synonym.
  • Act out the vocabulary word for your child (or have a sibling do it) and have the child guess which word it is.
Rebecca Capuano

Rebecca Capuano is the stay-at-home mom of three children (one of whom is in heaven) who also makes attempts at being a homeschooler, writer, photographer, scrapbooker, and truth-seeker. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from East Carolina University, and has worked in a variety of capacities (including group homes, day treatment centers, and public schools) with at-risk children and staff, including developing a therapeutic and educational day treatment center for delinquent youth in Wilmington, North Carolina. She currently resides in Virginia, and has written on a variety of topics for both and Home Educators Association of Virginia. Rebecca believes that family is created by God as the most fundamental institution in society, and she is dedicated to helping families nurture their children to become responsible persons of character and integrity. In addition to reading her posts at TheHomeSchoolMom, you can follow her search for truth (and blunders along the way) in family, faith and culture by visiting her blog,

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  1. Tricia Puritz

    This is a great article. I have actually been doing this with my children and I can tell you that learning words from what we are actually reading, and through the other subjects they are already studying, makes a HUGE difference in their retention, understanding and spelling! Thanks for the affirmation and fun practice tips!

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