The power of words is difficult to quantify and qualify. They have changed and will continue to alter the course of history. We see that on an almost daily basis in the media alone. I think one of the greatest tools we can provide to children is a large, rich vocabulary. It is valuable for their long-term success in school, but also in life in general. Not only do we need to provide children with a breadth of words but also the skills for using those words. I believe that being a confident communicator is a powerful tool. It allows one to live and speak their truth, stand up for themselves, and to form bonds and connections with the world around them. Wouldn’t this be an amazing gift to have and to pass on to your children?! It all starts with words–with increasing their vocabulary.

What is vocabulary?

Vocabulary refers to all of the words that we know. As a speech-language pathologist, I often talk about receptive and expressive vocabulary. Expressive vocabulary or expressive language refers to anything you say or the words you use. For example, if I show you a picture of a ball you look at it and say the word “ball.” I could also hold up a cookie and ask, “what is this?” When you respond, “cookie” you are using your expressive vocabulary. Receptive vocabulary or receptive language refers to the words that you understand. For example, if I ask you to point to a picture of a dinosaur in a book, then you can scan the page and find the dinosaur to show me. We use vocabulary for listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Why is having a large vocabulary important?

Research has shown that it is important to encourage a child’s vocabulary development, so they develop the literacy and language skills necessary to succeed in school. As the parent, primary caregiver, or teacher in a child’s life, you play an integral role in helping a child learn new words. By narrating your daily activities, in everyday conversation, and engagement with your child you expose him/her to new and unfamiliar words. This exposure helps expand a child’s vocabulary. Did you know that having a large vocabulary helps children think and learn about the world and that the more words a child knows, the more information he/she can access?
When teaching a child new words, it is important to focus on one word at a time. It is also important to choose vocabulary for something that he/she frequently sees in their daily routine or a word you find yourself saying a lot when you speak to your child. Perhaps your child is interested in books, so you decide your new, target word will be “book.” If you focus on one specific and relevant word at a time, your child will learn faster, and you will be able to teach more words in a shorter amount of time. We know from research that a child must first understand a word before we will hear them use it in their speech. When teaching the new word, start by pointing out the object whenever you see it. You can say, “Look, I have a book.” Then you can move on to your child identifying the object. Hold up two different objects and ask your child to, “point to the book.” Always provide lots of praise and positive reinforcement. I like offering specific praise. For example, you could say, “I like how you showed me the book.” Now you are ready to teach and build vocabulary.

5 Fun Activities to Build Vocabulary

1. Use your five senses during play. Engage in sensory play with your child and describe what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. You could plan a sensory-specific activity like playing in the sandbox with hidden treasures. This will give your child many opportunities to hear and use descriptive words which are a great vocabulary builder. Descriptive words can include size, shape, color, texture, temperature, quantity, etc. 2. Encourage play with a variety of toys. Your child probably has a favorite toy. Even though his favorite may be a firetruck, try to have a variety of toys for play. Different types of toys require children to use different types of language. Playing with a house toy encourages words like mommy, table, potty, and sit. While playing with trains may help a child to use words like engine, conductor, tracks, and go. Having a variety of toys available contributes to developing specialized language for each toy theme. 3. Play with children of different ages. When your child plays with kids who are different ages, he/she gets to try out different roles. When he is the older child, he gets to be the leader. When she is the younger child, she gets a chance to learn from others. Older children can provide an excellent model of new and different ways to use vocabulary too. Playing with peers is also beneficial for practicing social skills and social language/vocabulary. 4. Repetition is key. Repetition is important for acquiring any new skill, and that’s particularly true with young children. Think of the adage, “practice makes perfect.” When you introduce new words, use them in more than one instance to help it stick in your child’s memory. If you’re reading James and the Giant Peach, your new word may be “giant.” You could say, “Wow, that tow truck is giant,” as you point to it across the street. If your child does not pick up on the new word and use it right away, then do not worry. Like many things, children need to hear certain words or phrases more often than other before the language becomes a permanent word in their vocabulary. 5. Help your child expand their sentences. You can keep a conversation going by expanding your child’s words and phrases. If she says, “dog,” then you can say, “Yes, that is a dog. It is a small, brown dog.” You can also encourage your child to expand on his sentence by asking a question such as, “What is the dog doing?”

Want to learn more strategies to build vocabulary?