Building Up a Child's Vocabulary

Child language research shows that the number of conversations and the variety of words that children hear affect the speed of their language growth. Children who are exposed to more words, and more unusual words, in their conversations with adults tend to develop larger vocabularies.

You can help children acquire a larger vocabulary and build their oral-language skills by exposing them to a wide variety of experiences, both in and out of the home:

Meal time conversations


...expose children to rare words in contexts that help them figure out what they mean. For example, while cooking lunch, you might say she needs a “colander” to drain the water from a pot of spaghetti; this provides a meaningful context for an unfamiliar word.

Trips and other special events


...provide children with new vocabulary and knowledge. Learning is maximized when you lay the groundwork beforehand (e.g., reading a relevant book to help construct initial ideas about what a place is like and what goes on there). Giving children some appropriate vocabulary and information in advance usually heightens attentiveness during the trip. You can invite your child to predict what she will be seeing and hearing, record her ideas, and revisit these ideas later on.



...offer many opportunities for interaction. For example, times when children are getting ready for a nap or while adults and children do chores together—such as wiping the table before a snack—are great opportunities to initiate conversations.

Play time a good opportunity to hold conversations. Some children are more interested in talking when they have something concrete to talk about such as toys and materials. One advantage of this strategy is that a child who may be reluctant to talk can take nonverbal and verbal turns. For example, while Ms. Johnson plays and talks with her son Leon (who is 3 1/2 years old) about blocks, she says, “Your tower is very tall.” Leon responds by placing another block on his tower. She makes another comment: “Now it's even taller.” This time he responds verbally, “It's the tallest tower in the world.”

Note: These experiences are especially important for children with developmental delays and second-language learners because it gives them more support and opportunities to be excited about and comfortable speaking.


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