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Ep #38: Hacks for Learning More Words Faster (Part 3)

Teaching a child to read is one of the most important tasks a parent, caregiver, or teacher can undertake. It is the foundation for a child’s success in school and later in life, and that’s why understanding science-based reading has become increasingly urgent among elementary school teachers.

I’m rounding out our mini-series on the science of reading this week by introducing you to the basics of language comprehension. We discussed phonemes last week and explored how to teach our kids to be master decoders. However, if they don’t understand what the words they’re learning mean, we’re missing the point. And this is where language comprehension steps in.

Tune in this week as I share one of the models of the science of reading called Scarborough’s Rope, and what each strand of language comprehension entails. You’ll hear how each strand plays a role in helping your child master reading, and my favorite strategies for making learning to read a whole lot of fun.

The Play To Read program is where we combine the power of play with the science of reading to help children become proficient and confident readers, all while having a blast. It is being used successfully all around the world and you can use it too by grabbing it here!

What You’ll Learn:

  • The 5 strands of language comprehension.
  • What each strand of language comprehension entails.
  • One of the best ways to teach vocabulary.
  • How to hack the brain to store more information.
  • Fun game ideas you can play around with to help your kids build language.

Listen to the Full Episode:

Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:

What is the science of reading and why should you care? We are doing a three part series on the science of reading, the latest in neuroscience, cognitive science, around reading, how it happens in a child’s brain, what we can do to help it happen more efficiently and effectively so that children can become confident, proficient readers. Teaching a child to read and helping them become confident, proficient readers is one of the biggest, most critical jobs of a school teacher, an elementary school teacher. It’s also a huge job for parents because we support that and help that at home.

Now, talking about reading might not sound like the most exciting topic in the world, but I actually think you’ll find it kind of fascinating, I certainly have and we make it kind of fun too. I love to make it playful and fun. So I hope you enjoy this series, it’s starting right after this.

Welcome to the Raising Healthy Kid Brains podcast where moms and teachers come to learn all about kids’ brains, how they work, how they learn, how they grow and simple tips and tricks for raising the most resilient, kind, smart, compassionate kids we can. All while having lots of grace and compassion for ourselves because you know what? We all really need and deserve that too. I am your host, Amy Nielson. Let’s get ready to start the show.

We are on our final episode of this series on the science of reading. And today we are talking about language comprehension. And language comprehension is included in the common models in the science of reading. And of course, if you’ve taken any time to think about it at all, that makes sense. Because decoding is so valuable, understanding what a word says, being able to look at it, be able to decode it and then say what it says is great. But then if it doesn’t mean anything to you, then we’re kind of losing the importance, the value.

When we talked about in the last episode, I’m trying to learn some Korean and learning the Korean alphabet and then how you take those different alphabet letters and put them together to build syllables which are a character, each character is a syllable. And I can go and I can find a facemask at the local Ulta Beauty store. And I can pull that off and I can read some of the back of that label because it’s in Korean and I can sound it out. I can decode it, but I’ve got to tell you, I have no idea what I’m reading like. I don’t know what it means at all.

And this is where kiddos are at, if they can decode English words because we’ve taught them the phonemes. We’ve taught them how to blend them, to put them together in different ways and all of those great things. We’ve taught them to be master decoders. That’s fantastic, but if they don’t know what they mean, we’re kind of missing the point. So this piece is really, really critical and it pairs beautifully with what we’ve already been talking about in the last episode, which is that more decoding portion. So in Scarborough’s Rope, which is one of the science of reading models, there are five ropes or strands of the language comprehension portion.

So number one is going to be background knowledge. We’re going to talk a little bit about that. Number two is vocabulary. Number three is language structure. Number four is verbal reasoning. And number five is literacy knowledge. And I’m going to break down each one of those really quickly for you and we’re going to talk about some strategy and ideas for working on these and making it a whole lot of fun.

Okay, so let’s start breaking down number one, which is background knowledge. I’m going to tell you about one of the popular experiments that was done on this back in 1987. Two young researchers ran an experiment that was kind of fun and interesting. They took over an empty classroom and basically created an 18 by 20 inch replica of a baseball field with some four inch wooden figures on it. Now, over several days, they invited 64 students to enter the room one by one and they handed each student the same story, narrating half of an inning that made up a baseball game.

So the children were asked to read the story and then use the model to reenact the action. So the passage begins in the middle of the action and it’s like [inaudible] swings and hits a slow bouncing ball towards the short stop. Haley comes in, fields it and then throws to first, but too late [inaudible] is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb and the [inaudible] left fielder. The ball is returned to Clarson. He gets the sign, winds up and throws aside and that Whitcomb hits between Manfred and Roberts for hit. And of course, the story goes on and on.

So one 12 year old after another is trying to read this passage and then act out what they have read. So let me ask you the question that the researchers were trying to find out and that is who did the best job of comprehending what was happening and recreating or reconstructing the story? Was it the strongest readers, or was it the kids with a good knowledge of baseball? So to their surprise the researchers found that reading ability had very little impact on how well kids understood the story, very little impact at all. But the knowledge of baseball had a substantial impact on how well they understood the story.

In fact, those who were the weaker readers did as well as strong readers if they actually had knowledge of baseball. So what if this was something on the ACT or the SAT and you’re reading a passage and you’re supposed to be comprehending it and answering all these questions? If you have a strong background knowledge in the concept that you’re reading about, you might do better on this test than the really strong readers. On the other hand, if you’re not a strong reader and you don’t have the background knowledge, well, you’re at a severe disadvantage.

There is a famous quote from E.D. Hirsch saying that reading tests are essentially knowledge tests in disguise. Now there is so much information on this and what I want to do is refer you back to episode 13 in my conversation with Natalie Wexler because she has written an incredible book about this. Did so much research, spent years in classrooms doing research on this. And I was so blown away by what I learned from her that I went and kind of changed how I do things at home with my own kids to kind of help have a more systematic approach to making sure that my children have the background knowledge that I want them to have.

There are some great free resources out there. This is something you can do from home as well as in a classroom if it’s something that is important to you and it matters and it is doable. And it’s something that is not currently typically built into the culture or the curriculum in our early education and classrooms. So I would definitely encourage you to do some research on it, to educate yourself on this idea and read Natalie’s book and let me know what you think.

Next, let’s get into the second portion of language comprehension and that is vocabulary. So one of the best ways to teach vocabulary is to make connections across words, creating networks, word networks instead of teaching single words. Now, the way historically we’ve kind of done vocabulary, when my kids are bringing home vocabulary from classrooms and what we’ve done in the past is we’re kind of trying to work on maybe 10 to 20 words a week. It’s kind of big, it’s a lot. We’re trying to teach them all these words. Here’s the challenge is that if we’re teaching kids 10 to 20 words at a time we are going way too slow. That is not even close to fast enough for how many words we’re needing to get into their lexicon.

And what we know about words is that when we have taught them to map it out like we talked about in the last episode, when we’re also adding meaning to a word, when we give it a meaning and a picture, an image that then is in their head. That is when they really, really can use that word, it really becomes part of their lexicon and they can use and master that word. So what might be a more effective and more efficient way of teaching more words faster, how do we do that?

When I’m talking about this, I always kind of like to go back to the book Atomic Habits, and I loved it because this is where I kind of started learning about this method of sneaking things into your brain. And in the book, James Clear was talking about, he called it, I think, sandwiching. I am always thinking sandwich Oreo cookies, so sandwich cookies. But you’ve got something that you’ve already got in there and then another thing after that. And we’re trying to get something new into the brain, if you can put it in the middle, it’ll sneak into the brain a lot faster because it’s already connected to other things.

And so one of the really good ways to hack the brain and to store information in there and get it in there, hold it in there, get that retention and keep it really strong is to sneak something in, in a network connected to things that are already in the brain. Kind of think about it too like a job. If you know somebody at the company, you’re much more likely to get a job than if you’re just going in cold. So it’s the same idea of trying to get things into our brain. Now, I like to do this in a couple of different ways.

So one way would be to take a word and then kind of come up with words around it. One of the activities I’ve done with my own kids in the car and we do this again, just chatting in the car. This doesn’t have to be something that you do on paper or that you have a printable for or anything, but we’ll do this and we’ll take a word and then we’ll see if we can turn it into different parts of speech. So we’ll see if we can make it into an adverb or an adjective, is it a noun? Can we make it into a verb? And we’re kind of just finding all these different ways to use the same base or core word.

And we’re attaching different prefixes and different suffixes and different things and kind of coming up with all these things around it or maybe adding levels of intensity to it and things like that. So that is one way that I like to kind of build a lot of words into vocabulary at the same time.

So another method that you can use to kind of try to make the most, to get the most out of your vocabulary time, to sneak as many words in there as you can and have them stick to give yourself as much bang for your buck as you can is to use knowledge domains of words that belong to each other. So in a book that you’re reading, maybe there’s six to eight anchor words in a book. And then create a network of meaning around that, help your kids build the network of meaning around these different six to eight anchor words that are in the same book.

Use the story to kind of help build that network, talk through it so that children can kind of take the words from just being words to being a message. Building that meaning, building that message, building that connection between those different words is going to help all of those words stick better. And of course, if one of them is already in their lexicon, it’s going to help just pull all of those other ones in with it much more expeditiously than if you were just trying to individually slide in a random group of vocabulary words.

Okay, so we’re going to move on to the third part of language comprehension and that is teaching language structure. So the arrangement of words in a sentence is going to affect their meaning. So we can say something like I run and that gives you an idea, maybe you’re picturing someone running versus I run as no can stance. And that suddenly completely changes the meaning. We had the first two words the same but we added and arranged the words differently. We changed the arrangement and now suddenly it has a completely different meaning.

Now again, this can become a really, really fun game as you practice with lots of examples and kind of play with it. And basically, we’re helping kids become language builders, blocks, and they’re building up language and they’re deconstructing it and constructing it and it’s just so fun. So you can use labels as you have kids fill in different parts of speech. You can switch out the noun in a silly sentence. Can you switch out the verb, the adverb, the adjective? And just kind of rearrange sentences and how can you kind of trick yourself or kind of play with what’s there and rearrange it a little bit to make it say something completely different and maybe a little silly?

Or change out a couple of words or something like that and rearrange it and just helping children understand how changing the arrangement of words can really change the meaning in a sentence. This will help them become masterful sentence builders so that they can use their language to say the things that they want to say and to know how to take words and arrange them to give their message.

The next part of language comprehension, that next strand is verbal reasoning. And here’s where we’re kind of trying to help kids decipher the deeper meaning of words. We use a lot of similes and metaphors and figures of speech in the English language all the time. If we’re talking about on the ball or it’s a piece of cake. One of my favorite things around this, I remember even from when I was a child was the Amelia Bedelia books because she’s very literal. And so it kind of just points out all of these different figures of speech that we use and it’s just silly and playful. But we kind of take that and you can be playful with it and it is really, really fun.

But we do want to help put these into children’s awareness, help them become aware of them so that they can comprehend what they’re reading when they’re reading these kinds of phrases in the books and passages that they come across.

Okay, the fifth and final strand of the language comprehension portion of Scarborough’s Rope is literacy knowledge. This is basic literacy knowledge and this is that concept that letters make words, words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs. We’re also teaching things like we’re going to read left to right. We’re going to read front to back. What is fiction versus non-fiction? These seem really basic and maybe they are, but they are going to be really critical in helping children be able to construct and deconstruct language to be able to understand what they’re reading and to be able to create what they want to say either verbally or in writing.

Okay, you guys, that is your basic intro into the science of reading. I hope you have found this series helpful. Science based reading instruction is urgent, it is the most crucial work of elementary school teachers right now. Teaching a child to read is one of the most important tasks as a parent, caregiver, we can undertake. It is key, it is the foundation for a child’s success in school and in life. And it’s not just about decoding. I think we tend to focus on that a lot and it matters and we have some really good science around how to teach kids to decode like absolute bosses, so that’s amazing, we’re working on that.

We have got the Play To Read program out there and we are getting it into the hands of as many teachers and parents as we can and it is changing lives and it’s amazing. So it is about that, but it’s also about instilling a love of learning, fostering curiosity and opening doors to a lifetime of opportunities. And we can do this through helping learn the comprehension side of it. So that we’re really helping kids understand why it matters, why reading is so wonderful.

And if we’re trying to teach a kid how wonderful reading is and how amazing it is and all the incredible things it’s going to do for their lives, why would we do that in a really horrible, awful, boring way? We don’t need to, guys, we can do better than that and we can combine the science of play with this amazing science of reading. It’s a magical combination.

Learn more about how we’re doing this. Come and read the stories of people that have been using it. Come and check out the Play To Read program. It is at and give it a shot. We cannot wait to hear your stories. We love stories, it’s one of our favorite things here at team Planning Playtime. We share them all in our Slack channel and sometimes we get kind of teary, not going to lie. It’s one of our absolute favorite things, it’s why we do what we do every day.

We cheer and celebrate with each and every one of you. We are moms here, everyone on our team is a mom. Every one of us has had to work to teach our kids to read. Some of us have had kids that have struggled more than others and some of us have worked with kids that have struggled for a really long time. Kids who have felt hopeless, kids that felt like failures because they didn’t know how to do it because they didn’t have the right tools, the right instruction and the right way to do it where it was play and so we changed it, we changed it.

And we’re trying to change it for as many kids and parents, honestly, as possible, because no one wants to be the parent that’s working with a child that’s miserable while they’re learning to read. It’s game changing. And we want every kid to have the opportunity to learn to read this way. If I sound a little passionate about this, guess what? I am, this is what got me into play based learning in the first place was teaching kids to read and watching it not work with our old system. So I am passionate about it.

I do care about it because I care about kids and I care about reading and I care about their confidence and their future. And quite honestly, I care about your relationship with the kids that you work with or with the kids in your home and I know what’s possible with this program and that’s why I’m so passionate about it.

Okay, I’ll let it go from there, but go check it out And of course, if you have any questions, email me, I’m happy to talk with you about it, You can leave a comment on this podcast or of course, I’m always on Instagram and Facebook. Come say hello to me there @planningplaytime. Have an amazing rest of your week. And I will catch you on the next episode of the Raising Healthy Kid Brains podcast.

We have talked about how powerful the science of reading is and how impactful it can be when you stack that with the power of play, which is exactly what we’ve done with the Play To Read program. The Play To Read program takes the power of play and combines it with the science of reading and helps children become proficient, confident readers while having an absolute blast and building their fine motor skills, their communication skills and probably their relationship with you.

It is being used successfully all around the world and you can use it too today, go to to grab that program. Again, that is, to get Play To Read fun today.

Thank you for hanging out with me today for this fun chat on Raising Healthy Kid Brains. If you want to see more of what we’re doing to support kiddos and their amazing brains, come visit us on our website See you next week.

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