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How to build vocabulary when reading with young children

By Janet Castrejon

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Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is awareness that language is made up of individual sounds or phonemes. For example, the word "cat" has three sounds, the "c" sound (/k/), the "a" sound (/æ/), and the "t" sound (/t/). Word play, or playing with language, is great for developing phonemic awareness, a precursor to literacy, as well as developing vocabulary. Whether a child is engaging in word play in their first or second language, it can be a fun way to practice with new words.


Rhyming is the most common form of word play. Many children's books use rhyming. Dr. Seuss books are a great example in English ("I do not like them Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham."). When reading a book that the children are already familiar with, you can pause when reading and see if they can finish the sentence with the rhyming word. For example, with Green Eggs and Ham you could read, "Would you like them in a house? Would you like them with a ______?" Pause and look at the child. The child, who is already familiar with the story and sees the picture of the mouse, will finish the sentence for you.

Songs or chants are another great source of rhymes. While many adult songs don't rhyme, children's songs generally do. Furthermore, the repetition in songs helps gives extensive practice with the rhymes and the new vocabulary.

You can even play rhyming games while running errands. In the grocery store or in the car you could say to your child, "I see something that rhymes with ____." The child then looks around to find the rhyming object. An added benefit is that it distracts your child so that he or she will behave well in the grocery store.

Sound Matching

Sound matching is another phonemic awareness skill. An example of sound matching is having your child find something that starts with a certain letter or sound. This game, like the rhyming game, can also be used while running errands or in the car.

Another sound matching game is tongue twisters. If the language that you are teaching your child is not your first language, this can be trickier. Ask a native speaker to tell you some tongue twisters in their language so that you can teach your child. You might be lucky and be able to find a book of tongue twisters in the language that you're teaching your child. We found a book of "Trabalenguas" (tongue twisters in Spanish) on the Scholastic book order form my daughter's school. Another option is to Google for tongue twisters in the target language.

Sound Substitution

Yet another phonemic awareness skill is sound substitution. This is changing one sound in a word for another. One game you can play with this skill is having a "letter of the day" and changing the names of things (including your child's name) to start with that sound. For example, if your child's name is David and the letter of the day is "R," he would be "Ravid." The table would be a "rable" and the sofa would be a "rofa." Kids think it's a fun and silly game.

Another sound substitution activity is changing the sounds in songs. An example is the "Apples and Bananas" song. You may be familiar with it in English. Each time you sing the song, you change the vowel sound "Epples end Benenes" then "Ipples ind Bininis", etc. If you are not aware of such a song in the language that you are teaching your child, you could try substituting vowels in any simple song in that language. The "Apples and Bananas" song ("Plátanos y Manzanas") is available in Spanish on Esta Es Mi Tierra (This Land Is My Land).

Esta Es Mi Tierra

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