The Words That Matter the Most
Reading vocabulary consists of all the words children instantly recognize and understand. Some words occur quite often. Of the 1,000 most frequently used words for beginning readers, a mere 300 account for a whopping 65% of the words in text. Children learn to automatically recognize often-used words because they read and write these words time and again (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). You do not need to teach the meaning of these words because children already use them in everyday conversations.
Rare words are a second type of word. Rare words occur so infrequently that they have little likelihood of affecting comprehension and hence it is not worthwhile spending precious class time to teach these words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). The third group consists of words that occur occasionally (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). It is important to teach these words because (1) they are important for comprehension and (2) children may not see or hear them often enough to learn them on their own. For example, the reader is far more likely to come across baby than toddler or infant. Although readers come across infant and toddler only occasionally, these words appear with enough regularity to make them useful for readers to understand.
For the purposes of organizing classroom instruction, we will divide words into six categories: (1) multiple-meaning words, (2) homophones (words that sound alike but differ in spelling, such as sail–sale), (3) synonyms (words with nearly the same meaning), (4) antonyms (words with the opposite meaning), (5) special words in content subjects, such as decimal and subtract, and (6) the special words children want to know.
Many words have more than one meaning. For example, band refers to a group of musicians in “He played in the band” and to a ring in “She wore a gold wedding band.” Readers use context clues to help them figure out which meaning is appropriate. Text for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders uses more multiple-meaning words than the text read by children in lower grades. is a list of common multiple-meaning words that are important for understanding text.
Homophones sound alike but differ in spelling (sail–sale or site–sight). Children are far more likely to misspell homophones than to mispronounce them. Teach the simpler homophones in first and second grade, such as sail–sale. In third through sixth grade, single out for special attention the homophones children routinely confuse when writing, such as there–their–they’re, or homophones with meanings that are difficult to differentiate, such as principal–principle. is a list of homophones for reading and writing.
Synonyms and Antonyms
Synonyms are words that have nearly the same meaning. Beautiful is a synonym for pretty; famished and ravenous are synonyms for hungry. Antonyms have the opposite meaning. Sad is an antonym for happy; small an antonym for large; full is the opposite of empty. A good working knowledge of synonyms and antonyms supports comprehension and helps children write more interesting text.
Special Words in Content Subjects
Every content subject has special words. For example, perpendicular, photosynthesis, and chrysalis have specific meanings in mathematics and biology. Words like these need to be directly, explicitly taught and incorporated into classroom reading, speaking, and writing experiences. The words that matter the most in content subjects are usually listed in the teacher’s manual. Words are printed in boldface, placed in the margin, or defined in the glossary in children’s textbooks.
Special Words Children Want to Know
Every child wants to learn a few special words. Younger children are often interested in the holiday words and favorite foods, and the names of toys and television characters figure prominently in children’s preferences in the early grades. As children begin to read chapter books, they may be intrigued by special characters and events in these books. Strange words fascinate third through fifth graders. These children are interested in the longest words in English; words with odd letter combinations; palindromes (words spelled the same forwards and backwards, such as peep and pop); tongue-tickling words found in rhyming poetry and jingles; and onomatopoeic words (words that resemble the sounds around us, such as “meow” for a cat’s call and “tick tock” to approximate the sound of a clock ticking).
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