Vocabulary Victorious!

Mar 20, 2017 | Posted by Jennifer


One of the many hats I wear (and as homeschool moms, we all wear a lot of hats!) is reading and writing tutor. The vast majority of my students are dyslexic. I tutor students who are homeschooled as well as ones who attend public school. One common characteristic I find with nearly all of them is that they have extremely weak vocabularies because of their reading difficulties.

These weak vocabularies create distinct challenges when I am tutoring them in reading, spelling, and writing. After all, if a child doesn’t know what a word means, he cannot properly comprehend the sentence. These challenges also carry over into spelling. Take, for example, the word “clinician.” CIAN is a common suffix used to describe a person who works in a particular type of work—in this case a clinic. If a student can’t recognize what the word means, someone who works in a clinic, he will be more likely to spell it incorrectly, using instead the ending TION to create clinition.

Recognizing that a well-fortified vocabulary is worth its weight in gold, how does one go about obtaining it? The absolute best way I know of to introduce vocabulary in the home is to use it regularly. Some ways I have gone about that in my own home is to read aloud to my children stories, poems, and novels that use strong vocabulary. Early on we started by reading classic board books and picture books. As the children grew, we added in more challenging books. We enjoyed Kipling’s Just So Stories, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Reading aloud allowed me to introduce classic literature to my children that was above their reading level. The kids and I enjoyed our reading time, and it naturally carried over to other parts of our day. We called each other “Best Beloved” to be silly. We fretted about what was going to happen to Tom and Becky when they got lost in the cave. We cried when sweet, gentle Beth died. And as we discussed, I found my children began to incorporate the vocabulary naturally.

Reading, discussing, and enjoying great literature is the single best way I know of to build robust vocabularies. We found that by memorizing poetry, our vocabularies also expanded. Even though we moved through Linguistic Development Through Poetry Memorization several years ago, the kids have managed to hold on to many of the poems. “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “The Eagle,” and “The Duke of Plaza-Toro” introduced words like blundered, crag, and gallant. These are all words that they would not necessarily have encountered in their daily lives, but through literature they learned them and acquired them in their own personal lexicon.

Another way I have found to introduce complex vocabulary to my students is to begin a study of Greek and Latin roots. I really love the series English from the Roots Up. I started using it when my oldest was in second grade, but it works equally well for high school students. By studying roots from Greek and Latin for a short section of each school day, you will gradually build a larger lexicon for your students. Introduce one per day, and you will find that you will very quickly build up a rich “database” of words. If your students understand that petros means rock or stone, when they encounter a word like petrous, they will be better equipped to understand that the word means something related to rock. (In this case petrous means hard or rocky.) Other words that use petros as a base include petroglyph and petrified. Each in some way reflects back to its root, petros. Studying Greek and Latin roots a little each day is like taking an SAT or ACT vitamin. It goes a long way to comprehending some of those more challenging vocabulary sections!

The above suggestions are wonderful ways to build vocabulary over time, but what should you do if you need expanded vocabulary quickly? One way IEW addresses this through its writing program is to designate “banned words” and then offer lists of alternatives. If you’ve seen our Facebook page lately, you have probably noticed we’ve been sharing numerous word lists for some of the more bland verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Many of these lists can also be found in A Word Write Now: A Thematic Thesaurus for Stylized Writing and our IEW Writing Tools app. A Word Write Now has a bevy of word lists organized around character and behavior traits, and I find it is an excellent resource to pull out for younger students, especially, because it isn’t overwhelming and the words are organized by parts of speech. The IEW Writing Tools app is fabulous because it enters the digital realm that our teenagers like to inhabit. As long as they have their phone with them, they have access to enhanced vocabulary options.
It’s never too late to begin building up your vocabulary brawn. Even at my more “mature” age, I keep lists of words that are new to me. Start today, and while you’re at it, listen to Andrew’s talk, “Nurturing Competent Communicators.” During the talk Andrew delves more deeply into the secret to crafting competent communicators in your own home. I am certain you will find it to be quite compelling!


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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