People with more expansive vocabularies have higher IQ scores when compared to those with a limited word knowledge. Children who know more words achieve better grades in school, read at a higher than average level, are able to think more deeply, can express their emotions and thoughts better, and learn new things faster. By teaching our children literacy skills early in life, you can even reduce or avoid future learning difficulties.
One of the best things you can do to improve your child’s vocabulary, no matter their age, is to read to them. When you read aloud to your kids, they will learn more words, fine tune their pronunciation skills, and increase their comprehension. Of course all children enjoy stories, but there are unlimited options for what you can read to them: magazines, educational pamphlets, the rules posted at the park or pool, an instruction manual for a new toy or home product, appropriate newspaper content, religious material, road signs, or signposts on walking/hiking trails. Book on specialized topics also open the door to learn about things that are not available in everyday life, such as the moon, the desert, firefighters, or trains.
Talk with your kids, and talk to them “above their level.” If you mainly speak on their level, they will not expand their word base as quickly or efficiently. Repeatedly use a few words that your children aren’t familiar with.
For example, you could incorporate the word “unique” into everyday conversation.
“This flower is so unique because it looks different from the rest.”
“You are so special and unique because there is no one else like you!”
“This pretty bowl is unique because my grandma made it by hand and painted it just for me.”
Soon you children will pick up on the meaning and attempt to use it in their conversations as well. Research shows that parents who use this technique will help their children excel in reading achievement, too. Be sure to select words that relate to your child’s existing vocabulary and knowledge base.
But, talking in general is so beneficial to your kid’s little ears. Talk about the things you see in the grocery store, what your view on television, why you decided to go to the museum today, where you will go tomorrow, etc. This on-going conversation models sentence structure, vocabulary, and problem solving skills.
Repeat words multiple times across multiple environments. We don’t often remember a word after the first time that we read it out of the dictionary. In the same manner, children will not naturally memorize a word after hearing it only one time. In fact, some scientists believe it takes hearing a new word up to 12 times before we remember it. Continually repeat a target word at home, while playing in the park, in the car, and with family or friends. Doing so across multiple environments will allow your child to truly live the word and therefore adopt it into their vocabulary.
Share your joy of words. We all know that kids are observant and follow our example, and words are a great area to lead with your actions. Reveal your enthusiasm for reading by telling stories with excited expressions and dramatic tones of voice. Let your kids see you writing letters or reading a book. Take your children to your local library or bookstore. Have discussions with them about what you are learning and ask them to share their new knowledge as well.
Your one year old is still learning how to pronounce sounds, communicate in ways other than crying, and is naturally curious about the world. Captivate your active baby with new words, silly mouth sounds, and plenty of books.
Teach related words together as a set. For example, this week focus on words related to a farm, and next week words related to the sea and beach. Reading books, watching educational programs, playing with specific toys, or visiting museums related to these words will help your toddler learn these words
Associate words with pictures or toys. All of those board books and flashcards will be useful tools to teach your child additional words. Pointing at a picture while saying the words helps ingrain it better in your child’s brain through context. Encourage your little one to repeat the words or sounds back to you.
“Bird. Tweet tweet.” (You point at the picture of the bird with your hand).
“Bird. Tweet tweet” (You take your child’s hand to point at the picture of the bird).
Respond to your child’s attempt to talk. Although it may not be “real” words, you can repeat babble back and forth. This begins to teach your little one the “back and forth” model of taking turns during a conversation. It also is a valuable way to help your baby practice word sounds like “da,” “ba,” “oh,” “eee,” and “ma.” Even buzzing your lips, smacking your tongue, and making a kissy face will help your child’s mouth muscles develop and strengthen so they can later pronounce words well.
This is the age where your mobile toddler begins to form words and expand their vocabulary every single day. It is important to read with your child daily and to have a “conversation” with them frequently.
Compare new words with your child’s existing vocabulary. Teach them what a veterinarian is by comparing that to a doctor. “Doctors help you when you feel bad. A veterinarian will help our dog when he gets sick, too. A veterinarian is a doctor for animals.” This context helps your child fully understand the meaning of new words.
Validate and expand upon your child’s attempt at communication. If your toddler says, “kitty meow,” respond by saying, “Yes, that is a kitty cat. And the kitty says ‘meow.’ The kitty says, ‘meow’ to say hi to you. Hi kitty!” You are affirming your child’s knowledge that this is a cat and it makes that noise. But you are also expanding their knowledge by sharing that cat’s meow as a form of communication and that you can talk back to the cat. Similar to earlier ages, this exemplifies the back and forth pattern of conversation.
I bet by now that your toddler has a good foundation of words and is able to communicate their wants, needs, and basic emotions to you. Continue to teach your kids new words because they are like a sponge and will soak up much more knowledge than you think!
Discuss how words have multiple meanings or sound the same. Having a broad vocabulary is beneficial for many reasons, of which we have previously mentioned. But, supplying your child with a deeper knowledge is essential as well. You can do this by elaborating on the words he/she already knows.
Talk about how “cool” can mean cold in temperature or something neat; that “too/two” means also and the number two; how “cake” is a sweet treat we eat for our birthday but “caked on” means that something is stuck on or put on thickly; or how “right” is on the right-hand side, or means correct, while “write” (sounds the same but is spelled differently) means to make letters with a pencil on paper. There are many examples of similar words that have varying meanings. I bet your child will begin asking questions about these words, or simply use one in an incorrect way, allowing for a teaching moment.
Practice sight words. Preschool aged children can begin to recognize a few sight words. Label basic items of your home with a note card, such as lamp, door, bed, or car. Sound out each letter/syllable, pronounce the word, and touch the note card each time you use the labeled item.
5 and beyond
If your child is school-aged, he/she should be able to read, pronounce, and write each word properly. When your kid comes across a new word, help him/her pronounce it multiple times (repeat after me) as well as spell it out loud or write it down. This will help it stick better in their memory and promote accurate usage in the future. Why is this important? Research suggests that nearly 15% of our entire vocabulary is learned through reading.
Set the stage for an elaborate story. Select a location (mountain, desert, beach, etc.), characters (how many, boys or girls), and part of the conflict (their boat wrecked, they are looking for treasure, etc.). Then let your child’s imagination finish the story. Ask thought-provoking questions along the way. If your child says the beach was cold, ask them if it was winter or if it was a northern beach. Ask questions that allow you to introduce your child to new vocabulary words within the context.
Read, read read. Now your child can read (or is beginning to read) by his or herself. Either purchase or borrow from the library books that interest your child: novels about dragons, stories about horses, elaborate mysteries, or educational books. Have your child read a novel before they watch the associated movie. Sign up for a reading program that offers rewards for reading. Subscribe to magazines that are age appropriate and interactive. Join a book club so your children can meet other readers and discuss their favorite books. Don’t forget to keep leading by example!
Offer grace for mistakes. Of course your child will mispronounce words, use them in the wrong tense, or use it in the incorrect context. Gently correct your child by first pointing out what they said correctly, then what was incorrect. Teach them how to modify their statement or word. Try to make this process feel more like an encouraging modification instead of a punishment or embarrassment; doing so will give your child reassurance and freedom to accidentally make mistakes while knowing that you will not embarrass them.
Games To Play With Your Child To Help Expand Their Vocabulary
Here are a few suggestions that you can use or adapt to help your child of any age broaden their knowledge of words.
What starts with? This is a great family game! Someone picks a letter or sound and everyone takes turns finding items in the room to match that letter/sound. For a more simple version, everyone can think of a word that starts with that letter/sound (instead of seeing an item).
Mom: “I pick the letter ‘T.’ I see a toy.”
Dad: “I see a turtle.”
Son: “I see a tray.”
Daughter: “I see a triangle.”
Close enough. Find words that have only one additional letter (cannot be the first letter, and cannot add “s” to the end). One person says a word and the other finds a similar word. For example, fog/frog, pay/play, bake/brake, say/stay.
Have you…This rhyming game involves silly phrases and many giggles. Have your child select two rhyming words, “frog” and “log.” Then you make up a little singing rhyme:
“Haveeee youuuuu….ever seen a frog dancing on a log?!”
“Haveeee youuuuu…ever seen a frog juggle a log?!”
I’m thinking of a word… Think of a word and share the first letter or two plus a context clue.
“I’m think of a word…that starts with the letter ‘p’, and we wear our swimsuits here (pool).”
“I’m thinking of a word…that starts with the letters ‘sh’, and you have some on your feet (shoes).”
Rhyming nation. Pick a word and see how long you and your kids can make up rhymes to match (even if they aren’t real words!). Log, fog, wog, dog, hog, pog, etc.
Scrabble. Another common board game, this one can be modified and adapted to the age and level of your children. Feel free to change the rules by providing your child with unlimited letter tiles, or only give them 10 and see how many words you can make with those letters. As the parent, this provides you an opportunity to teach them new words while you play. Be sure to have a simplified dictionary handy, too!
Apples to Apples. This card game has you select one green card that has a new word on it, with 3 additional words to describe it. Then every player chooses a red card from their hand (which each have a noun on it) that matches the green card. This one is a favorite for older kids, but there is also a Junior version available.
Did we miss anything? Please share some of your fun tricks to build vocabulary.