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Unlocking Reading Success: How Boosting Vocabulary Sparks Reading Comprehension

girl reading books inside play tent

How does strong oral language underpin literacy and reading comprehension?

At first glance, it might look like our oral language skills and our ability to read and understand text are two very separate skills. Most people learn to talk very well before school and without outside intervention, whereas reading and reading comprehension must be taught and practised. In reality, strong reading comprehension relies on strong oral language skills and if you or our child are struggling with language, early intervention is highly recommended.

Understanding the Connection between Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension

Our vocabulary is the collection of words that we understand and use. Typically, we read and understand more words than we use in our speech or writing. Written text generally uses a more varied vocabulary than spoken language and being able to read and comprehend a wide variety of text is essential both for academic learning and to read for leisure. 

Even if you encounter a word you don't know, skilled language users can often figure it out by examining the sentences around it and considering the text's context. For instance, if you read, "In the desert, you might ride on a dromedary with a humped back," even if you're unfamiliar with "dromedary," you could likely make a reasonable guess based on the surrounding information. This ability to infer meaning from context is a key aspect of reading comprehension, relying on your existing knowledge and understanding of the world.

Building Blocks of Literacy

A child's understanding of words shapes their ability to grasp new information. The more words they know, the better they can comprehend what they read or hear. This is because new information connects with existing knowledge, making it easier to retain. Thus, vocabulary serves as the cornerstone of comprehension, expression, and reading.

How to Grow Vocabulary: Explicit Instruction is Key

The best words to explore with your child are ones that are common among adult speakers and common in texts. For example, aroma, investigate, lure, demand, magnificent, and vain; many of these words pop up in children’s books.

When introducing new words to your learner, keep these helpful hints in mind:

Provide a simple, child-friendly definition for the new word

E.g. Aroma means a very strong smell, usually a nice smell, but not always.

Provide a simple, kid-friendly example that makes sense within their daily life.

E.g. Remember when we baked banana bread together and the aroma filled the whole house!

Encourage your child to develop their own example

E.g. What else makes a strong aroma? Can you think of something very smelly that you saw today? That’s right! The flowers in the garden have a strong aroma! They made me sneeze!

For children primary-school-aged and older maximise the learning opportunity and discuss some word-study features:

  1. What type of word is it? E.g. noun, verb, describing word etc

  2. What are some synonyms (words that mean the same thing)?

  3. What are some antonyms (words that mean the opposite)?

  4. What is the base word? Is there a prefix or suffix?

  5. How does this word relate to other words with similar parts?

Finally, keep your new words active within your house. Over the next few days and weeks, take advantage of opportunities to use each new vocabulary word in conversations.

Addressing Challenges

While vocabulary and oral language are vital for literacy, difficulties may arise. Dyslexia, for example, can hinder reading despite intact oral language skills. If a child struggles to meet classroom expectations, a comprehensive assessment by a speech pathologist can pinpoint areas of difficulty and guide intervention strategies.

Embracing the Journey

Learning new words is an adventure, offering endless opportunities for self-expression and understanding. As we navigate the complexities of the English language, let's celebrate its richness and diversity. Together, let's embark on a journey of discovery, one word at a time.


Strong oral language lays the foundation for literacy and reading comprehension. By nurturing vocabulary skills and fostering a love for language, we empower learners to unlock the wonders of the written word.

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