In this post, I will show you 5 powerful ways to improve your child’s vocabulary to set them up for success in school and life!
Did you know that the size of your child’s vocabulary as they enter school can be used to predict their academic success years later?
It’s a crucially important area! Having a strong vocabulary will help your child to learn to read more easily, as well as to engage with all areas of the curriculum (even subjects like math and science are dependent on a strong language foundation!) And it’s not all about academics- it will help them socially, too.
Check out this handy handout for how typical vocabulary development occurs across several ages. You could say that there is an explosion of vocabulary in the first six years of life!
I’ll break down what vocabulary is and what’s actually involved in learning new words. But more than that, I’ll show you what you can do as a parent to help your child to learn new words and key ways to improve their vocabulary with lots of strategies and ideas.
These strategies are simple but effective, and mean that you as a parent can massively improve your child’s vocabulary!
What is vocabulary and why is it important?
There are more than 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. How many of them do you think you know? How many do you use on a daily basis?
Our vocabulary is all the words we know and can use. In childhood, our vocabulary provides the building blocks for understanding and using language. The words we know are also the tools we use for thinking- our vocabulary helps us to generate and share ideas, negotiate, problem-solve internally and aloud, and participate in life.
Our vocabulary also forms the building blocks for literacy and learning- if we don’t have a strong foundation, it will be so much harder to learn to read and write.
Vocabulary is much more than just knowing some big words!
It’s important to remember that vocabulary involves both being able to understand and use words. There is a lot involved in both of these things and it’s a key part of improving your child’s vocabulary. You will need to think about improving both parts- the words they understand, and the words they can actually say.
To understand a word, we first have to listen to what someone is saying, and separate it into individual words. Then we take each word and try to match it to a word we have stored in our vocabulary ‘filing cabinet’ in our brain.
Words are stored in our brain in a clever way. Each word is stored with information about how it sounds, its grammar, and its meaning. So, to know a word, we have to pick up all this information and match it to a stored word in our vocabulary.
The process to use a word is just as complex. First, we have to know the idea we want to express or share. Then we have to search our brain (the filing cabinet of our vocabulary) for a word that has that meaning. If our vocabulary is well organised and words are stored with their grammar and sound pattern, then we have all the information we need to say the word.
Our vocabulary is like a computer– we can understand words and use words if it is well organised. The information stored about each word is not just the meaning but how the word can be said in a sentence and how the word sounds when it is spoken.
So, for example, if I say, “my favourite is broccoli,” it’s important that you recognize the sound pattern of broccoli, and then make connections to your knowledge of vegetables and make sense of the features and functions of the word broccoli to understand that I am telling you the name of my favourite vegetable.
We can understand a word at different levels. ‘Divaricate’ (meaning the branching pattern of a plant) may be a word I have heard before but I’d have to look it up in the dictionary if someone asked me to define it. Rich, however, is a word I know well and can use easily in my day-to-day conversations- even to mean different things.
How do children learn new words?
Children learn new words in everyday conversations and situations. For example: playing, listening to stories and engaging in classroom interactions.
The research on word learning shows that young children are able to capture aspects of what a word means by the contextual information present when the word is used in natural situations.
Children first learn a word through developing a general understanding of its meaning but they might not always use it correctly.
For example, a child might first use ‘dog’ only to refer to their own dog, and then they may use dog for other four legged animals about the size of their own dog. Once they hear ‘dog’ in a range of contexts, their knowledge of ‘dog’ develops.
So, children learn the meaning of a word by hearing the word in lots of different situations. This is crucial and underpins all of the ideas that follow- repetition is necessary to improve your child’s vocabulary. Repeat the word when reading and when out and about. Use it in different ways and at different times. Build your child’s understanding of this word!
5 Powerful Ways to Improve Your Child’s Vocabulary
1) Teach meaningful words
Think about a time recently when you learned a new word. Why did you need to learn this word? What motivated you to find out its meaning and to remember it?
We learn new words for a functional purpose– for developing an interest, because we are required to understand an activity, or possibly even to avoid negative consequences (it’s embarrassing if you’re the only person who doesn’t understand an instruction!)
Children need the same kind of motivation to learn new words. This means that we need to target words that are likely to be interesting and useful for their learning and daily lives.
Target words need to be individualized to meet the needs of the child and should:
- relate to meaningful contexts
- link in with what’s happening in school
- help the child to communicate their ideas and interests
- be words that they need to interact with others
2) Teach useful words- make sure you teach lots of different types of words!
As well as thinking about your child’s motivation to learn words and how the words relate to your child’s real life experiences, we also need to think about which words will be the most useful.
There are different types of words.
- Naming Words (Nouns)
- Action Words (Verbs)
- Describing Words (Adjectives and Adverbs)
- Location Words (Prepositions)
Children need to learn words from each group to understand language and to express their ideas effectively.
This will result in ‘a balanced diet of words’.
Why not create a word web for your child based on a a topic they are interested in, or a story book that would interest them.
Put the topic in the center of the web and have four or five words from each of the different types of words around it.
For example, if the topic was RIDING THE BUS, the target words might be:
Naming words: bus, seat, road, window
Action words: sit, drive, sing, stop
Describing words: noisy, bumpy, long, slow
Location words: first, on, after, in
If the topic was the BEACH, the target words might be:
Naming words: beach, sand, bucket, crab
Action words: swim, dig, build
Describing words: sandy, cold, tallest, slowly
Location words: behind, underneath, in
3) Teach the Word in Different Ways
When I think about a time that I learnt a new word, I needed someone to:
Define the word: tell me what it is, tell me what it does, and provide a dictionary definition.
Contextualize the word: to show the item if possible, hooking into my prior knowledge and experiences- where might I have seen it before?
Extend the meaning: Where would I use it, where would I find it, why would I use it?
Explain the sound patterns: to tell me how to say it, and tell me words that are similar or associated (this information helped me to recall how to say the word).
Breaking a word down like this can be a powerful way to improve your child’s vocabulary! But how exactly can you apply it to your child?
How to Define a Word
Give child friendly definitions:
- Focus on the word’s everyday use
- Use language that your child is likely to understand
- Refer to experiences your child can relate to
- Describe the look, feel, touch, sound, smell/taste where appropriate
Example: A bus is bigger than a car. It has lots of seats so people can all go on it together.
How to Contextualize the Word
- Use the new word frequently
- Link the new word to prior knowledge and experiences,
- Use visual representations where relevant.
- Use the new word in a variety of contexts that highlight: functions, location, and sensory characteristics (look, fee, smell and/or taste).
Example: Sometimes our class goes on a bus. Can you remember when we all went on a bus? Can you tell me what the bus looked like?
How to Extend the Meaning
- Link the word to known words with similar meanings.
- Use visual organisers such as word webs to show how words are related.
- Discuss the category of the word e.g. clothing, sport, transport.
- Make grammatical connections e.g. some apples, a pair of gloves
- Build up word associations by pairing the word with a known word- e.g. gift and present.
Example: A bus is something that takes us places like a car or a train. A bus goes on the road just like a car or a truck. This bus is going into town. What other places do buses go?
How to Teach Sound Patterns
Teaching sound patterns might sound a little technical, but it’s a fantastic thing for parents to get into the habit of doing. Teaching your child about sound patterns (or ‘phonological awareness’) will have lots of benefits for their overall language and literacy.
Here’s what you can do:
- Identify the number of syllables in the word (get into the habit of clapping out words).
- Talk about long and short words.
- Generate rhyming words e.g. ‘kind’ rhymes with ‘find’. Encourage your child to think of a rhyming word.
- Identify any words within the word e.g. ‘beside’ has two words- ‘be’ and ‘side.’
- Discuss other words that have the same beginning sounds or endings.
Example: Let’s think about the word elephant. That’s kind of a long word, it has three claps! What sound does elephant start with? Can you think of other words that start with that sound?
4) Provide a language rich environment
A language rich context is a fundamental base for children’s incidental learning. This one is essential! Again, this is massively powerful and underpins all of the above strategies to improve your child’s vocabulary.
We need to provide opportunities for great conversations where adults are responsive to the child’s interests. A language rich environment in the classroom and at home, and great conversations provide an ideal context for word learning.
This can be as simple as having a range of interesting books, displays of new words, poems and songs, and the opportunity for drama and role play. It can also involve using words for various purposes- e.g. using shopping list, the opportunity to listen to and give instructions to others.
A great conversation is one in which the child has an opportunity to make spontaneous comments, and to ask questions. As a parent, you need to establish a shared understanding, respond to your child’s interests, listen to, acknowledge and value your child’s contributions, and ensure that each speaker has talking time.
5) Combine incidental learning with explicit instruction
Incidental learning is about providing lots of opportunities for your child to hear the word in a variety of activities- during your daily routines such as meal times and bath time, and as you are out and about naturally in your day.
Explicit instruction involves purposefully giving your child opportunities across to learn a word. It might be that you have a new book about animals and you have picked some words to expose your child too. Remember to think about more than just the naming words- which describing words, doing words and location words can you teach here, too?
It’s now time to plan some specific goals for your child! Pick some target words (include different types of words), plan both incidental learning and explicit instruction and teach these words in different ways. Remember that it should be relevant and motivating for your child. And don’t forget that it should all take place within a responsive and interactive conversation!
If you’ve enjoyed these ideas to improve your child’s vocabulary, then also check out strategies for busy parents to boost speech and language.
Want a little more?
Grab my free copy of the Speech and Language Strategies Essential Cheat Sheets. Print off and use to help with these strategies to boost your child’s speech and language. Enjoy!