What Is My Child’s Reading Level? Part III: The Role of Vocabulary

People often think that IQ and reading are closely intertwined. So when a child easily learns to read, it is seen as a sign of high intelligence. Conversely, when a child has difficulty learning to read, it is often interpreted as a sign of questionable intelligence.

In reality, those ideas are far from accurate. There tends to be little, if any, relationship between intelligence and the acquisition of initial reading. A variety of cognitive and behavioral skills do relate to early reading–but these tend not to correlate in any significant way with intelligence. For example, good fine motor skills facilitate a child’s ability to learn handwriting. Similarly, visual scanning skills ease a child’s attention to the printed word. But the same cannot be said for the overall intelligence that is measured by IQ tests.

However, things begin to change as a child moves up in the grades of school. And vocabulary is one of the skills that play a big role in this change.

It has long been known that vocabulary has a high correlation with intelligence. But it is not the vocabulary of the early years when children are learning the words to describe everyday life such as car, run, girl, and happy. Rather, it is the vocabulary associated with multi-syllable, unfamiliar words such as quality, escape, collapse, tranquil, and residence. These sorts of words are rarely heard in everyday speech. For example, people readily say things such as “I live on South Street.” They rarely say, “I reside on South Street.”

Although they are rare in spoken language, these less familiar words permeate more advanced reading. And they are not there to “show off.” Rather, they are essential to the higher level subject matter in history, biology, and literature. Imagine discussing the American Revolution without using terms such as rebellion, government, military and the like.

Because these words are encountered primarily in reading, children learn them primarily via doing a lot of reading. And the reading yields a snowball effect: the more one reads, the more one’s vocabulary grows. The reverse holds as well. The less one reads, the smaller one’s vocabulary will be. This is where the correlation between reading and intelligence is found. Once past the early years of reading (roughly grades 1-3) there is a strong correlation between IQ and reading.

Although we all tend to put considerable value on intelligence, the significance of this relationship goes well beyond a high IQ score. A good vocabulary is essential to being an effective reader. Without a broad word base, a book becomes a sea of confusion. The end result is that reading of higher level material is unbearable and un-doable.

If you would like to get a measure of your child’s ability in this area, you might try the following:

1. select a book written by a good author. The book should be at a grade level that is about two years higher than the grade your child is in.

2. choose about ten two-syllable words and about ten three-syllable words from any of the pages. The words should cover nouns (i.e., objects, people, ideas), verbs (i.e., actions) and adjectives (i.e., characteristics).

3. say to your child, “Just tell me if you know this word. You do not have to tell me what it means. Just tell me if you know it by saying “yes” or “no.” (It may seem surprising but, if children are comfortable, they are quite willing to state what they do and do not know. As a result, the “yes/no” measure is faster and less stressful than asking children to actually define each word).

4. if your child indicates knowing 80% or more of the twenty words, then it is likely that his or her vocabulary is in good shape. If the score is lower than that, then vocabulary teaching might be in order.

Fortunately, if you do spot weakness in this realm, the solution is not hard to come by. It is found in the world where these words reside–namely, the world of books. Setting aside time for nightly reading of good books is the best and easiest answer. Not only can it build your child’s reading abilities and intelligence, but it does lots of your relationship as well.

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