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What Does Listening Vocabulary Have to Do With Beginning Reading?

by Janet Caruthers, Ed. S.                 Teacher / Academic Intervention Specialist


Father reading to his son imageMost people don’t know [but YOU will] that there are 4 distinct kinds of vocabulary your child will acquire. The four kinds are listening, reading, speaking, and writing. This article is about the largest, most important vocabulary for successful beginning reading, listening vocabulary.

You have many words in your head that you have heard over time, but have never seen, used in your own speaking, or used in your own writing. If you hear the word, you just know what it means. Maybe you’ve heard it before and someone explained it to you or you heard it in a context that helped you figure out the meaning yourself. These words are part of your listening vocabulary. You use your listening vocabulary everyday as you try to understand what you hear (when people talk or when you listen to television, movies, song lyrics), and what you read.

Your child begins developing his listening vocabulary from birth. I was amazed when my almost two year old grandson understood so many things we would say to him. We’d say, “Go get your guitar,” and he’d toddle into his room and sure enough bring the guitar out to us. At less than 2 years old, he already had a huge listening vocabulary. How did he get this huge listening vocabulary? People talked to him in sentences and told him what things are called. You might be doing the same thing with your child without realizing the impact you are having on developing his listening vocabulary and how the size of his listening vocabulary will impact his ability to learn how to read and understand what he reads.

Over my more than 28 years of teaching, I have helped many people learn to read, so I personally know the impact listening vocabulary has on successful reading. Believe me, the size of your child’s listening vocabulary has a huge impact on his ability to read successfully. Let me explain.

While giving a commonly used reading test to first graders (the character was looking all over for a lost item), I noticed that some children (the ones with very weak listening vocabularies) would stop reading and try to s-l-o-w-l-y sound out the word “closet” (c-l-o-s-e-t), while the ones with strong listening vocabularies would just barely slow down when reading the word (some would make the first sounds then magically read the word0. I think I can safely say that none of the children had ever seen the word “closet” so why could some children easily read the word and others not? The children who could read it, had looked in their own closets for things and someone had told them that it was called a “closet.” Those children could read the word quickly, even though they had never seen the word. That’s what you want your child to be able to do – read quickly, so he understands the story better.

One more true story: When I was an Academic Intervention Specialist working with struggling readers, an amazing thing happened. There was a little first grader, I’ll call him Devin, who was reading way below grade level. He should have been reading about level 14 and he was on level 6. He would try and try to read all the words in his level 6 books, but struggled with decoding. One day, his teacher had a level 12 book about frogs on the reading group table. Devin picked up the book and was looking through it. His teacher said, “Why don’t you read it to me?” To our amazement, Devin picked up the level 12 book and read it with very little help. He read many words he had never seen, but he knew a lot about frogs. When he came to a word he didn’t know, he just said a word that started with that letter and made sense. That is the power of listening vocabulary.

As you have been told, much of beginning reading is decoding (sounding out words). To decode successfully depends on a reader’s ability to remember letter sounds and the decoding rules. If a child cannot do this quickly, his comprehension will suffer. But a less talked-about ability (yet just as important) is the reader’s ability to quickly figure out the unfamiliar words that do not entirely follow the phonics rules (there are many). This ability is HIGHLY dependent (maybe totally dependent) on the size of his listening vocabulary.

The ability to figure out an unfamiliar word quickly depends on a reader’s ability to pull a word out of his head that would sound right and make sense in that passage. So that’s where having a huge listening vocabulary (lots of words to pull out of his head) comes in. Your little reader WILL encounter words that he has never seen, so he can’t recognize them, but if he will make the first two sounds of the word and think of what word would make sense, usually the word will pop into his mind and he will read it. It is sort of like magic! He will be able to read a word that he as never seen! BUT if the word is NOT in his listening vocabulary, he won’t be able to pull the word out of his mind, so he will probably stop reading at that point or skip the word and go on, both of which will impede his reading comprehension. You don’t want that!

Let’s try it: You can figure out what word would go in a sentence even if there is only part of a word showing. Try this: “The pen was broken, so he threw it in the tr____.” You know for sure that the word is “trash” because “trash” is in your listening vocabulary. But if you had never heard it called “trash” you could not have figured out the word. You did not rely on your reading, speaking, or writing vocabulary to figure out the word, you used your listening vocabulary. See how important listening vocabulary is to reading?

To expand your child’s listening vocabulary: Talk to him about everything. Tell him the names of everything you can think of that he encounters. Talk about things you see on outings and pictures in books. Discuss, discuss, discuss! For ideas and lists of hundreds of things you might forget to tell him, check out these two downloadable books written by a reading specialist and teacher of over 30 years, Parts of Everyday Things and Other Stuff Children Need to Know and Family Learning Time.

Parts of Everyday Things also contains information about what you can do now to improve your child’s reading comprehension later, why teach nursery rhymes, and other important information. For information about these downloadable books and resources, click here.


  Family Learning Time Book Image Parts of Everyday Things Book Image Everything Has A Name Workbook A Image  

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This page last updated 06/20/2016