10 Tips for Expanding Your Child’s Vocabulary

Looking for ways to help your toddler develop and expand her growing vocabulary? Learn 10 easy tips to help your child become a budding wordsmith.

A little one speaking his or her first word is a much-anticipated milestone for parents and the culmination of learning that began at birth. A child’s brain can capture and retain more information before age 10 than at any other time in life, making the early years the perfect time to expand your child’s vocabulary. Integrating the following 10 easy tips into your family’s day-to-day life can bring impressive and lasting results.

1. Talk to Your Child

Studies show that the baby talk many moms use to communicate with infants helps these babies learn to communicate verbally—making communication important from birth. And surrounding your child with words is just as vital as your baby grows. A 1991 study by University of Chicago psychologist Dr. Janellen Hutenlocher, PhD, documented the vocabulary growth of 22 children from the age of 16 months to two years. Half of the children had “very talkative” mothers while the other half had “least talkative” mothers. Children in the word-rich environment learned 295 more words by the age of two years than their counterparts, demonstrating that exposure to speech is critical to building a child’s vocabulary.

For older children working toward higher levels of language development, Carol Garhart Mooney, author of Use Your Words,, indicates parents need to correct improper word usage. “Meaning is the key element when we have conversations with very young children,” says Mooney. When your child uses a word improperly, Mooney advises that you explain the error and offer a correction. “This clarification is essential to help children make sense of the word.”

2. Listen to Your Child

By conversing with your child at her physical level—eye-to-eye—you’re letting her know that she’s captured your complete attention. This small act builds your child’s self confidence and allows you to focus on what she has to say. Parents should strive to provide support and encouragement whenever their child speaks. All too often we say, “Shhhh!” or, “Not now, Honey” when our children talk. If you must quiet your child temporarily, be sure to return to her, on her level, and ask her to repeat herself so you can hear what she has to say.

While we teach our children not to interrupt and should hold ourselves to the same standard, adults must sometimes interrupt children to move forward with an activity or conversation. Extend the courtesy you expect from your child by being polite and courteous, saying “excuse me,” “please,” “sorry,” and “thank you.” Modeling appropriate behavior is the most effective way to teach manners and etiquette vocabulary.

3. Engage Your Child in Conversation

If you’ve ever tried to converse with someone who doesn’t want to talk, you know that simple “yes” or “no” questions can quickly kill a conversation. The same is true with children. Mooney says, “For any number of reasons, most adults are much better talking at children than they are at talking with them.” To exercise your child’s vocabulary, ask questions that require in-depth answers. For instance, instead of asking a child if he wants pasta for lunch, ask which kind of pasta he wants and why he likes this particular kind. The more a child has to use his words, the more adept he will become at conversation and vocabulary will improve naturally.

“Put Reading First,” a report by the Partnership for Reading for professional educators, advises teachers and parents to engage children in oral language. “Young children learn word meanings through conversations with other people, especially adults. As they engage in these conversations, children often hear adults repeat words several times. They also may hear adults use new and interesting words. The more oral language experiences children have, the more word meanings they learn.”

4. Read to Your Child

Reading to children fosters a love for literature and improves vocabulary through exposure to words. “Reading aloud is particularly helpful when the reader pauses during reading to define an unfamiliar word and after reading engages the child in a conversation about the book,” according to the “Put Reading First” report.

Charlotte Mason, a 19th-century educator, based her educational theories primarily on learning through literature. She believed by reading short bits of literature to pre-readers, then listening to them narrate the piece in their own words, children truly grasped the meaning of words. As her students grew older, they narrated longer pieces and eventually wrote their narrations. This recounting of information exercises thoughts, language, and vocabulary. You can employ this oral exercise with your toddler or preschooler while reading bedtime stories.

5. Limit Television

Language is symbolism. Sounds stand for things, actions, and descriptions—but when a child is watching television, her brain does not have to produce representative images because images are already provided on screen. Audio recordings are a thought-provoking alternative to television and videos because children must form their own images of the words they hear. They must decipher the symbols to understand the language. This brain exercise literally causes the brain to grow in size and capacity, says Beth Flemming, family life specialist for Iowa State University Extension, in her article “Brain Keys Language Development.”

6. Understand Which Words Come First

Because nouns are symbols that represent tangible things, they are usually the first words a child understands. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, a 20-month-old’s vocabulary consists mostly of nouns, no matter which language he speaks.

Parents can focus teaching based on this natural progression of understanding. Sit with your child and name, don’t describe, items from his toy box. Children can comprehend and learn to describe how the items look and feel later with simple verbs (run, jump, eat, play) and adjectives to describe emotions, colors, and sizes.

Older children may experiment with words. Whenever your child asks what a word means, provide a definition and example. If she misuses a word, offer encouragement for the effort and a gentle correction.

7. Play Games with Your Child

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the popular PBS children’s TV show, was a booming success with young viewers because Fred Rogers spoke directly to each child, taking advantage of children’s love for attention. You too can use this as a teaching technique.

Play games with your child. From familiar unnamed games like “What sound does this animal make?” to the ever-popular I Spy, one-on-one parent-child games offer concentrated time for teaching, learning, and bonding.

Older kids enjoy parent-child games for road trips or waiting at the doctor’s office. Try “Name a Synonym” or “Name an Antonym.” Another fun option pairs a letter and a location to make a word association game. You may say, “Things in an airport that start with the letter H.” Once kids learn these games, they’ll follow your example and play them with friends.

8. Build a Learning Environment at Home

What’s in your family room? Probably a television and stereo, maybe an Internet connection or video games, and a collection of CDs and DVDs. What about books, art supplies, maps, puzzles, and board games?

Providing a rich learning environment at home can help all aspects of a child’s education, including vocabulary. After watching a nature video, can your child find maps to learn where the video was shot? Can he find supplemental photos and literature about the animals? Discussions will come naturally if you provide a welcoming atmosphere. A word-rich educational environment should also provide a good student dictionary, thesaurus, and a set of encyclopedias or online encyclopedia.

9. Introduce a Second Language

In many countries, young children are taught more than one language. Some preschools and elementary schools in the US offer a second language, and television programs such as Dora the Explorer introduce bilingualism to little kids. Not only will learning a second language widen a child’s vocabulary, but words from various languages often originate from the same Greek and Latin roots. Recognizing similarities in word roots opens a new level of understanding language that will help a child throughout life.

10. Set an Example

Adults only learn about 25 new words each year, according to 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. Set an example for your children by showing them adults can expand their vocabularies too. By setting a precedent for learning in your home, your children will know the importance you place on education.

Mooney says adults use language with children for many reasons. “It is our hope to increase the child’s vocabulary, model the correct pronunciation, and make meaning and provide context for the thousands of words we use every day.” Words are powerful tools. Consider the presidential speeches that have impacted history, the words written on our national documents that men have died to keep sacred, and the words you use to convey your adoration for your child. As a parent, you have the awesome opportunity to train your child in the understanding and development of a diverse vocabulary and potentially improve his life as an adult, starting now.

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