Early Learning
Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Signs All Around

Words, at their core, are how we make sense of the world. There is a word for just about every concept, no matter how concrete or abstract. Vocabulary, then, might be one of the greatest tools to help our children purposefully navigate the world around them. While there has been much debate, research indicates that the best way to develop a child’s vocabulary is suspiciously simple: children need to talk, be spoken to, and ask many questions, but they must also read voluminously to acquire academic vocabulary. 

Where Do Words Come From?

Although spoken language is critical to the development of early and functional vocabulary, there are limits to how many words can be acquired from verbal language alone. For example, an analysis of rare word usage demonstrated that on average there are more rare words used in a children’s book than there are in spoken expert witness testimony at a trial. Speech is naturally less varied and complex than writing, so in terms of word exposure alone, strong readers have access to far more of the estimated 40,000 words they will need to know by the time they graduate high school. Although some words may be learned through direct instruction, especially vocabulary that might be labeled as “jargon” or “content-specific,” extensive narrow reading builds the deep background knowledge necessary for new words to form systematic connections within a child’s mental map.

Identity and the Matthew Effect

Like so many processes in literacy, reading volume is inextricably tied to several other factors , not least of which include vocabulary development, word recognition, fluency, general knowledge and decontextualized reasoning. A child’s amount of reading practice impacts her reading skill, which in turn affects her motivation to read, thus determining the amount of reading practice… this reciprocal loop forms the foundation of the Matthew Effect in reading, where seemingly predestined strong readers become even stronger, and weaker readers appear to slip further and further behind. However, with the exception of learning delays, fate or destiny do not hold the influence some might imagine. With proper support and encouragement, children can reverse course and develop a positive reading skill loop.

A crucial difference between strong and weak readers is how a child self-identifies in regard to reading. From an early age, children should have good reading habits modeled for them and engage in activities that promote reading as fun*. Some of my favorite books to share with children to spark their own joy of reading are On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier and Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus are heartwarming stories bringing children into the story.  In contrast, books such as Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett involve humor and capture children’s interest helping them to want to read more. Series books are powerful inducements to read because they reintroduce beloved characters in new stories, have recognizable plot structures and familiar storylines such as making friends, solving mysteries, or going on amazing adventures. Series books are powerful inducements to read because they reintroduce beloved characters in new stories, have recognizable plot structures and familiar storylines such as making friends, solving mysteries, or going on amazing adventures. One of my favorite series is Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne because in addition to these components it builds students background knowledge and introduces them to new worlds and fantasy.

Reading Together

One of the best ways to reinforce the fun of reading is by reading together. Even on the software, the Success Books in iRead serve as a wonderful resource to model and practice vocabulary development but revisiting these titles as a shared or guided read with students reinforces the joy of reading. Page 81 of the Professional Guide outlines a series of downloadable resources connected to the variety of ways vocabulary contextualized through reading can be reinforced. Content-specific words of the book’s Power Words can be frontloaded using the Academy Vocabulary routine. Teachers can use downloadable Word Scales with children to build mental models around the nuances between related verbs and adjectives found in texts. For example, even though walk, march, and strut all basically mean movement, during a shared read the teacher could encourage children to show the differences with their bodies based on word usage in the book. Movement, establishing mental models, and hearing the children’s timely and motivated responses are reasons to create opportunities for interactive read alouds. Similarly, teachers can use downloadable concept maps to make children’s mental models come to life when learning new words or concepts. Take this a step further by tying related words or concepts to specific shared experiences such as a field trip or an event hosted by the school. Furthermore, each book’s Instructional Guide recommends which of these strategies to use, identifies the title’s Power Words, and highlights any additional vocabulary that may need to be frontloaded.

The importance and value of an expansive vocabulary is undebatable. However, there is great comfort in knowing that the development of strong word knowledge is can arise from something as seemingly simple as reading. Strong reading outcomes snowball into even stronger reading skills and motivation to read even more, allowing children to enter into a positive and sustained feedback loop . Teachers and parents can make reading not just fun, but a part of a child’s identity. 

*As part of this series, you may want to also check out my blog post, “Can We Play iRead?” 


Dr. Anne Cunningham is nationally recognized for her research on literacy and development in early childhood. Her research examines the cognitive and motivational processes underlying reading ability and the interplay of context, development, and literacy instruction. Dr. Cunningham has served on several early childhood expert panels, including the National Early Literacy Panel. Her expertise informed the entire Big Day for PreK program with specific emphasis on phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, assessment, and professional development.