Growing Your Child’s Vocabulary Organically


Recently, as we were en route to a camping trip, my six-year-old wondered how much longer the ride would take.  Instead of asking, “Are we there yet?” she said, “How much more time until we reach our destination?”

My husband and I chuckled at her choice of words but we weren’t surprised.  My eight-year-old son was recently evaluated by a speech language pathologist.  We discovered that the stroke that he suffered at birth has impacted how his mind processes the written word.  However, she was surprised to find that his vocabulary and grammar skills, and his ability to understand language and express it verbally, was very advanced for his age.

I have no question how this came about.  My husband and I followed two steps, which set the stage so this process could happen organically – no vocab tests or drills needed.

  1. We make a point to fill our children’s bookshelves with books that have withstood the test of time. There may be new releases that will become classics one day.  However, the books that are generally considered as classics are looked upon that way for a reason.  We didn’t assume that our children couldn’t understand something that was written in old-fashioned or challenging language, either.  If we weren’t sure that the child would understand a word, we’d simply pause and explain what it meant.  Most of the time, we found that they could intuit the meaning through context.
  2. My husband and I read aloud daily to our children. In “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” Jim Trelease encourages parents to read aloud daily to their children, even past the age that they are able to read independently.  He states, “Kids can usually listen on a higher level than that on which they read.  Therefore, children can hear and understand stories that are more complicated and more interesting than anything they could read on their own.”  He also explains how words that are attained by the “listening vocabulary” then get transmitted to the speaking vocabulary, reading vocabulary and writing vocabulary.  Reading aloud is a bedtime ritual in our home.  As our six-year-old’s attention span isn’t the same as her brother’s, they each get to choose their own story.  This is a precious bonding time for our family, where we can share our love of reading and introduce stories to our children that were beloved from our own childhoods.
    1. Another thing that we’ve found to be helpful is putting audio books on in the car for our children to listen to. They can usually be borrowed from your local library.

There is no need to be legalistic about this approach.  When we go to the library, my daughter often picks picture books that are aesthetically appealing to her but are not very challenging.  That’s fine; I simply add some classic books that I know she’ll like as well.  In the end, she usually prefers what I picked for her.

Although we began this process with our children when they were very young, I think it would be beneficial to begin family read-aloud time with good books at any age.  I believe that the learning challenges that my son may face will be offset by the advantages that his exposure to quality literature has given him.  Most importantly, my children have learned that reading is a pleasurable experience, one that you never outgrow.


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Using Guided Repeated Reading to Improve Fluency

Smart girl

I am in my fourth year of homeschooling my son and learning to read has been a slow process for him.  He’s made a lot of progress recently, but the one remaining obstacle that I see is for him to achieve enough fluency to feel confident reading in public.  In co-op, Sunday school or other activities, he avoids reading.  He confided in me recently that he doesn’t want to read in front of his peers because he still needs to sound some of the words out.  Most of the children that he encounters around his age don’t have to do that.

As a result, I decided that helping him to be a fluent reader needs to be our top priority right now.  I don’t want him to miss out on participating in activities that he enjoys.

We’ve often used the McGuffey’s Readers for oral reading practice, and years ago, I read on another mom’s blog that she had her children read the same lesson from a McGuffey’s Reader for five days in a row.  At the time, I was confused as to why she did that, as the lessons in the early readers are short and sweet.  As I searched for information on improving fluency, though, I discovered why – Guided Repeated Reading.  While our phonics curriculum had new passages to be read by my son each day, Guided Repeated Reading has the child read the same passage over and over until they can read it without hesitation, even if it does take five days.  The steps that we have been following are:

  • Practice reading for 30 minutes per day
  • Have the child read the same passage at least 4 times in a row
    • Supervise and make gentle corrections when needed
  • Read the passage aloud for the child at least twice to model fluent reading for them

pinkk flowers

One piece of advice that I’ve read is to model the passage at the outset of the lesson rather than having them sound it out first.  The idea is that having familiarity with it removes any anxiety that your child may have about approaching new text.  I see value in that idea, but my child is used to doing memory work (such as poems and Bible verses) and I notice that if I read through the passage for him first, he appears to be reciting portions back to me from memory, which isn’t reading.  For that reason, I have been having him sound everything out initially and then modeling it for him after he has gotten through the whole thing once on his own.

Within 3 to 6 months of following this protocol, your child’s reading is supposed to greatly improve.  We’ve been using this method for about six weeks and I can see evidence that it is working.  I’ve noticed a few improvements in particular:

  1. When he encounters a word that he has mastered in a passage that we’ve previously worked on, he often remembers the word on sight now, rather than having to sound it out as though he is seeing it for the first time.
  2. If we return to a passage that we’ve already done and moved on from, he can still read it easily.
  3. He’s becoming braver about attempting to read unfamiliar words in other situations.

Over the course of time that we’ve been doing this, he has gone from needing about three days on a new passage to being able to master it almost completely in one sitting.

If reading fluently is a struggle for your child, you may want to consider using Guided Repeated Reading as a tool to help them.

Sight Word List for The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading


The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading (OPGTR) is a phonics curriculum written by Jessie Wise.  You can read my review of it here.  In this book, the focus is on learning to read by sounding words out, so the number of “sight words” that children are asked to memorize is minimal.  However, at some points in the book, common words that do not follow regular phonetic patterns or follow patterns that will be introduced later in the book are written down on index cards and introduced to the child to be memorized.

This year, my husband and I set up an official classroom for our children, and in the process of moving things, I misplaced my OPGTR sight word cards.  I resisted making new ones at first, convinced that they would turn up as soon as I did so.  As we are in November now, I decided to give up waiting and made new ones.  I searched through my book to see if there was a complete list of the cards in there, but there wasn’t.  I searched online to see if anyone else had compiled one.  No luck!  As a result, I had to sit down with the book and look at each lesson, one by one, in order to make sure I didn’t miss any of the words.  After all of that work, it occurred to me that there has to be at least one other parent out there who has had this same experience.

pinkk flowers

As a result, I have decided to share this sight word list.  I’ve also added the lesson number at which each word is introduced.

Lesson Number Word Introduced
29 the
31 I
36 a
50 of
66 have
70 give
76 to, two, too
91 do, who
92 friend
95 eye
97 buy
99 was
100 shoe
114 could, would, should
126 said
129 one, once
131 build, built
141 laugh
148 what, does
150 gone
156 are
173 where, there, were
174 their, here
189 choir
194 people
198 been
200 busy
217 only

I hope that you find this helpful!  I know that I am going to use it as a reference if my sight word cards wander away again.

Awakening – Letting Children Develop at Their Own Pace

lily photo 2

This summer, I discovered something new in our yard – a beautiful, yellow lily with a burgundy center.  In the decade that we’ve lived in this house, it had never bloomed before.  About a week later, a solid yellow lily appeared in another part of the yard.  A friend had given me some flower bulbs about two or three years ago, and I planted some in both of those locations.  After the first summer had come and gone without anything appearing, I’d given up hope on them, but they’d been alive in the earth all along.  My husband thinks they came up now because our neighbor cut some trees down and we are getting more sunlight.  Whatever the case, they apparently needed time and the right conditions to bloom, and this was their year.

Not long after this, another miracle occurred; my son, who is seven, turned to me and said, “Mom, I’ve been noticing something lately.  I know how to read now.”

I’ve been trying to teach him to read for about the same length of time that those bulbs have been underground, and until recently, the fruits of my labor had not seemed very productive.

When I made the decision to homeschool him, a veteran homeschool mom told me, “Don’t worry if he is slow to read.  Several of my children have been, but they all got it eventually.”  I nodded and smiled, thinking that I didn’t need to worry about that.  After all, I could read at age three, and my two older children, who’d gone to school, were reading in first grade.  Why should he be any different?

When we began his phonics instruction in kindergarten, he was making good progress until he actually had to begin blending the isolated sounds that he’d learned into words.  No matter what I tried, he just could not “hear” the blend.  I was set on following the curriculum to the letter, and he was getting frustrated by the amount of practice that was required by each lesson.  By the time that he was able to blend, he had developed a dread for reading and a lack of confidence in his ability, no matter how much I tried to encourage him.  To make matters worse, a friend of mine noticed his inability to read and began to question me about it, periodically suggesting that I ought to put him in public school, which made me feel even more defeated.

When he reached second grade, I knew that I needed to try something different.  Some days we did a lesson out of the phonics book, and on alternate days, we used a vintage reading primer that he enjoyed and felt less intimidated by.  His sister was beginning kindergarten, and she quickly began to catch up to him.  When he realized this, an internal motivation emerged from him not to let her out-do him.  His cooperation improved, but he still needed to sound everything out slowly, letter by letter.

I prayed for a breakthrough and continued to have him practice this summer with some easy readers.  One day, I noticed that he was beginning to finally see what some of the words were on first sight, without having to sound them out.  Now, the day had come when he realized what that meant.  He was finally a reader.

I should have listened to that mom years ago, when she tried to impart some wisdom from her own experience.  Children develop at their own pace.  Rather than wasting time worrying or letting my pride be injured that my child wasn’t doing something at the same time that other children are, I should have just turned my cares over to God and had confidence that my son would bloom when the time was right.  Just like the lilies in my garden, it was a lovely surprise when it happened.

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” – Matthew 6:28-30

How We Use “The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading”

Reading time

I am now in my third year of homeschooling.  My son is in second grade and my daughter is in kindergarten.  I have been using “The Well-Trained Mind” by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise as my basic guide.  With that in mind, I purchased the text that she suggests, “The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading” (OPGTR) by Jessie Wise and Sara Buffington to teach phonics to my children.

I began kindergarten with my son right as he was turning five.  We initially followed the scripted lessons in OPGTR to the letter.  In the beginning of the book, where the short vowel and basic consonant sounds were introduced, he participated enthusiastically and my three-year-old joined in.  However, once the book began to introduce sentences for him to read to practice the sounds he had learned, things began to go downhill from there.  Long story short, I ended up spending more time fighting with him to convince him to do the lesson than we actually did on the lesson itself.

pinkk flowers

I still believed in the curriculum.  The scripted way that the lessons are presented makes it easy to use and I like the thorough way that each sound is described.  The problem seemed to be that my son was intimidated by the amount that he was being asked to read.  I consulted some online homeschooling boards for suggestions from other parents and found that others had experienced similar issues with their children.  Some of the ideas that I tried were:

  1. Writing the words or sentences that the child is supposed to read on a chalkboard or whiteboard, word by word or sentence by sentence instead of having him reading right out of the book.
  2. Splitting some of the longer lessons over two or three days.
  3. Eliminating or shortening some of the sentences.
  4. Taking a break from the book for a while and using easy readers for practice in the meantime.

After trying all of these suggestions, we were still trudging our way through the OPGTR at the beginning of second grade, by which time I believed that he should have been finished with it and reading independently.  It was a battle every time the book came out and I tried to sit him down to a reading lesson.  You may think that I should have given up on it by now.  However, when I tested my daughter to see at what point in the book I should start with her, knowing that she had had some exposure to it, I was surprised to discover that she already knew all of her basic consonant and short vowel sounds, meaning that we were able to skip past the first third of the book.  Obviously, it had been beneficial to her, just from listening in on her brother’s lessons.

With that in mind, I finally devised a way to motivate my son to practice reading without a fight but still finish up the curriculum.

  1. We follow the scripted lesson which explains each phonics rule and read the words which utilize the sound.
  2. I read the sentences to him/her, pointing at each word as I say it, and making them follow along with their eyes.
  3. We practice reading sentences in books that he is not intimidated by.
    1. Mainly, we use the McGuffey’s Primer or First Reader (which can be purchased here or downloaded for free here).
    2. Bob Books
    3. Hooked on Phonics readers

As I am embarking on this book anew with my kindergartener, I’ve also taken into account some mistakes that I made the first time around.  Because getting my son to complete a lesson was such a battle, I ended up skipping some of the steps that the book suggests for lack of time.  Now that I am now longer requiring him to read all of the sentences, he is cooperative and we actually have the time to do these things:

  1. The One New and Two Review rule. Basically, this means that you do a quick synopsis of what the child learned in the last two lessons before embarking on the new lesson.
  2. Sight Words. The OPGTR doesn’t encourage sight words as a rule, but introduces them periodically when a word is “disobedient,” meaning that it doesn’t follow the basic phonics rules, or if the word is a common one (like “the”) that cannot be sounded out.  We make a flash card as the book directs us to and then review them several times a week.  My children like to play a game that whoever reads the most sight words first gets a treat.  (This post lists the sight words introduced in the book in order.)

I decided to share what has worked for us because I’ve seen so many parents lament that although they like this curriculum, their children hate it and they have the same battle of wills going on that I did.  If my experience can help someone else to be successful with it, that will make all of the trouble I experienced at first worth it.  On another note, knowing what I know now, I probably would not have started kindergarten with my son until he was six and not put as much pressure on him to read right away.  Research suggests that girls tend to find learning to read easier than boys and many children aren’t ready for formal schooling at five years old.  “The Well-Trained Mind” takes the approach that once a child learns to read, the whole world of learning is open to them.  While I agree with the idea, if pressing the child to read when they are not ready makes them resistant to learning in general, then it does more damage than good.

All in all, I do recommend this book to other homeschooling families, keeping in mind that they may need to use some of the above-mentioned strategies if their child struggles with it.

Note:  I wrote this towards the end of last school year.  Over the summer, I kept having my children practice reading in some easy readers and my son has made significant progress and gained confidence in his ability to read!  I also discovered that The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading is supposed to lead to a fourth grade reading level once the child has completed it.  I feel that the edition of The Well-Trained Mind that I have was not clear on this.  Knowing that, I feel better about the amount of time it has been taking us to work through the book.