If your child has been introduced to linguistics – the study of language, its structure, and word meanings – she is in the position to excel at vocabulary and become a better reader. “A good vocabulary can be a ticket to a better job, enhanced opportunities, and success with people you care about,” says Becky Burckmyer, author of Awesome Vocabulary.

A word is similar to a person:  it’s unique and has its own origin. The “root” of a word is what it sounds like: its base, or main unit. Think cred in the word incredible, which means “believe,” or port in transport, which means “carry.” Many English words are derived from Latin or Greek. “If you know what a root, a prefix, or a suffix, or all three mean, it’s often easy to figure out the meaning of a word without googling Merrian-Webster online,” says Burckmyer. Take the word bicyclist, she says. If your child knows the prefix bi means “two,” the root cyclo means “circular,” and the suffix ist means “one who does,” she can guess that a bicyclist is someone on two circles, or wheels.

But the English language is tricky, and your child will stumble upon terms notorious for fooling people, like confusing homonyms, or words that sound exactly alike, but have distinct meanings. “Some words mean something quite different from what, by their looks, their sound, or the way other people are using them, they ought to mean,” says Burckmyer. Younger readers may not know the difference between except from accept, for instance.

Burckmyer offers advice on using new and frequently misused words:

  • Create mnemonic devices:  Use “memory helpers,” like the phrase “I before E except after C.” To remember the difference between ambiguous (hazy or unclear) and ambivalent (unsure or indecisive), for example, take note that things or ideas are ambiguous, while people feel ambivalent. Encourage your child to create imaginative, amusing ways, such as songs, to remember definitions.
  • Think of prefixes and suffixes as your friends:  From anti to pro, a prefix – the beginning of a word – hints at the word’s meaning. Anti means “against,” while pro means “forward” or “in favor of,” as in progress or promote. A suffix – the ending of a term – determines the role of a word: able signals the word is an adjective, like “lovable,” while tion denotes a noun, such as “station” or “condition.” Your child can display a chart of common prefixes and suffixes next to her desk.
  • Pay attention to similar words: Consider capacity, or “potential ability,” and ability, or “skill.” These words, which people interchange, don’t mean quite the same thing. Your ability refers to something you have learned to do, but your capacity refers to an innate talent. Another pesky pair? Adverse and averse. Adverse means “not good” or “unfavorable,” while averse means “unwilling”: “She had an adverse reaction to the humid weather and fainted.” Or, “the greedy boy is averse to sharing his toys.” Urge your child to practice these words in conversation by using them yourself!
  • Conquer those homonyms: Know the difference between complement and compliment or cite, sight, and site. When speaking these words, your child probably isn’t visualizing their spellings in her mind, but with regular exposure to such words when reading, she’ll catch on. Burckmyer warns not to rely on a word processing spellchecker to find these errors – if your child wrote, “The bike was stationery,” for instance, some computers may not catch that the correct term is stationary, or “not moving.”
  • Avoid stuffy, tired language: Longer words aren’t necessarily better. “Ask yourself whether you’re really adding to meaning or simply adding to length and complexity,” says Burckmyer. Utilize is too fancy – use works just fine. And some words are simply worn out. An adjective such as nice adds dead weight to a sentence – if describing a friend, try warm-hearted or approachable.
  • Beware of nonexistent words: Believe it or not, people use words that don’t exist! It’s anyway, not anyways. Or regardless, not irregardless. If your child hears or reads incorrect uses of words, tell her that people, books, and signs can be wrong. Urge her to look words up in trusted sources, such as the dictionaries of Merriam-Webster or Oxford.

Bottom line? Encourage your child to read all the time, everywhere. “Read the newspaper, read the classics. Read online, hard copy, billboards. Read on the subway, on the plane, in the tub,” says Burckmyer. It’s the easiest and most natural way to build up her vocabulary.