Words are the building blocks of communication. Comprehension vastly improves when a reader knows the meaning of the words on the page; and the main goal of reading is comprehension. For all students, English natives and ESL, a strong vocabulary benefits learning activities: reading, speaking, and listening. It boils down to the fact that the more words a child knows, the better their comprehension can become.

Vocabulary building is an important part of reading speed and proficiency. Unfamiliar words can trip a reader up, leaving them to try one of two options: puzzle the meaning out from context or stop and look it up. Both methods can be useful, but even if they can figure out a general meaning from context, there is still a benefit to be gleaned from having them look up the full definition—mastery.

Taking control of an unfamiliar word can help boost a child’s confidence. Just think back to the glee expressed when they mastered speaking their first words. The feeling remains, though it may be less obvious as they get older.


Here are a few ideas. The activities below suggest access to a dictionary—digital or hard copy. Most secondhand bookshops and thrift stores stock student dictionaries, which will cover most of the words your child will likely happen upon in their studies and recreational reading. Digital dictionaries are a great resource as well, and most are free, though we would suggest a little discretion in your choices as not all dictionaries are created equal. Here are three quality suggestions:

A Personal Glossary

One option is a notebook meant only for collecting unfamiliar words. While reading, they should keep it, or a sheet of paper, near to write down any unfamiliar words. For the sake of comprehension, they should go ahead and try to use context clues or look up the word in question. Later, they can transfer that word and the complete definition(s) into their glossary notebook.

Word Wall

Another option is using index cards. They can keep them in a deck or post them up on a bulletin board to create their own word wall using similar methodology—jotting down the word and the full definition on the same side of the card.

The Next Step

No matter what method you and your child choose, remember, defining words one time is often not enough to master new vocabulary. Reviewing their wall, cards, or glossary regularly will help them “own” these formerly unfamiliar words.

Once they own a word, they can highlight it in their notebook; take the card off the wall and store it in an envelope where it can be easily retrieved, if needed; or mark these words for the record in some manner. One advantage to using the cards is that, once mastered and stored, your child will have a physical representation of their achievement throughout the year. Highlighting works in a similarly satisfying manner, though it may not have quite the same impact as a stack of index cards.