Meghan Cox Gurdon
Vocabulary and Grammar
As Vanderbilt’s David Dickinson and his colleagues pointed out, “Children learn vocabulary through grammar and grammar through vocabulary”. The children who heard (and saw) repeated iterations of words in the same stories retained the new words to a much greater degree than those who encountered the words (and objects) spread across different stories. The results, the researchers wrote, “provide good news for parents: it is not necessarily the number of different books that matter, but rather following requests to ‘read it again!’” “However, if they hear a word in different syntactic settings, their understanding will expand. The more words and the greater diversity of texts children hear, the more easily they can untangle these intricacies.”
As Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, professor of education, psychology and linguistics at the University of Delaware told me, “The child learns best when they’re active, not passive. But you don’t want to turn reading into a didactic teaching time. You want to follow the pointing finger, the little pointing finger, so that what’s on the page comes off the page and links to the kid’s life.”
As Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, points out, a child’s reading level doesn’t typically catch up to his listening level until about eighth grade. An adult reading aloud does far more than impart a story, therefore: he or she also shows by tone of voice, phrasing, and pronunciation how complicated sentences can be tackled, subdued, and enjoyed. And while all that is happening, the child is soaking up fresh ideas and unfamiliar words.
Observed E. D. Hirsch, a former professor at the University of Virginia who is perhaps best known for his 1987 bestseller Cultural Literacy. “Students don’t learn new words by studying vocabulary lists. They do so by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge.”
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