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Vocabulary & Broccoli

New vocabulary can be daunting, especially for a young, relatively new or struggling reader. If you’ve forgotten how intimidating unfamiliar vocabulary can be, try reading something in a field that is completely foreign to you.

I experience this all the time, as I assist other professors with the development of course in their respective fields. My latest project? Finance 560: Introduction to Derivatives and Risk Management. Through all of my years studying English and Education, I never once took even a freshman level Finance course. The title alone is enough to make me hide in a closet. And then I have to remind myself that I have a PhD, and it’s just plain silly for someone with a PhD to be scared of words—even big ones. Right?

Now put yourselves in the shoes of that child you know who avoids reading like it’s a Mt. Everest-sized pile of cheese-free broccoli. Vocabulary is a big deal! So what do we do about it?


A great first step is to understand that there ways to identify books that won’t be overwhelming. One really simple rule often used in early elementary classes is the 5-finger rule.

  • 0-1 Tricky Word: This means that the book may be too easy. In some ways, this book may be a great confidence builder. But if we really want to see our budding readers grow, we’ll have to push them to try some new, more challenging books.
  • 2-3 Tricky Words: This book is just right. There will be a few words that your reader will have to figure out, but the other words should be familiar, providing helpful clues as to what these new words mean.
  • 4-5 Tricky Words: This book may be too difficult for right now, though your reader may be able to tackle it with help or at a later time.

In the world of education, we also use the terms independent level, instructional level, and frustration level.

  • Independent Level: If the child can read a book with hardly any errors and retell the story or information back to you, then this book is probably right at his or her “independent” reading level. These are perfect books for building confidence in a young or struggling reader.
  • Instructional Level: If the child can read with 90-95% accuracy and answer at 80% of the comprehension questions accurately, then this book is probably on his or her “instructional” reading level. This means that it’s a great book for the child to read with an adult. It also poses an excellent opportunity for vocabulary building, as the adult can help the child sound out these words and identify clues in the book that can point to its meaning.
  • Frustration Level: This often occurs when accuracy drops below 90%. However, the book might still work as a read-aloud, where the child can focus on listening and engage in discussion about the book. Read-alouds provide sort of a sneak preview of what children will be able to read at a later point, and they provide an opportunity to talk about and use new, challenging vocabulary.

It’s important to note that there will always be exceptions to the rule. Many young children have read the Harry Potter books in spite of J. K. Rowling’s use of rich, higher level vocabulary. This speaks to the power of an exciting, relatable story—and the opportunity to teach kids new words. Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate does this very thing in an intentional and humorous way.

And of course there will always be little bookworms. I still remember finding my 10-year old sister glued to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which I’d been reading as a part of my English degree program. Let’s just say I had to peel one very surprised eyebrow off of the ceiling and restore it to its rightful spot on my face. My sister was a card-carrying book addict as far back as I can remember, and the more she read, the broader and deeper her vocabulary repertoire became. As a result, books weren’t intimidating; they were exciting.

One of the great quandaries for struggling readers is the reciprocal relationship between vocabulary and literacy development. Kids who struggle with reading avoid reading, which limits their exposure to new vocabulary. This is why it’s so important to understand the relationship between vocabulary and reading levels—and to capitalize on every opportunity we can find to help budding readers blossom.

So if you haven’t already done so, encourage the young readers in your life to use the 5-finger rule. Interact with them when they read or find a book that’s a bit high for an independent read. Ask them questions about those tricky words. And just for fun, pick up a Lemony Snicket book to see just how fun new vocabulary can be.

Published inEducationReading


  1. Bethany Bethany

    Great Information Lisa. Thank you.

    • Lisa Hernbloom Lisa Hernbloom

      You’re most welcome, Bethany! I’m anxious to hear more about your young reader. =)

  2. Lisa, this is an informative post! thanks so much for sharing it! :0)

    • Lisa Hernbloom Lisa Hernbloom

      You’re most welcome, Juliet! I hope to continue providing helpful thoughts that may help young and developing readers. =)

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