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5 Simple Tips for Strengthening Your Child's Vocabulary

Even though your child may only be a baby or toddler, he is building an important foundation of skills that will have an impact on his academic success in Kindergarten. Researchers now know that one of the most important factors influencing a child's likelihood of performing well in school is his vocabulary knowledge. Children with larger vocabularies are more likely to succeed academically.

What else has research taught us about young children's vocabularies?

  • Babies whose mothers talk to them more have larger vocabularies in toddlerhood than babies whose mothers are less talkative. This research conducted by psychologist Janellen Huttenlocher at the University of Chicago actually found the difference between the two groups amounted to 131 words at 20 months, and a whopping 295 words by the age of two

  • Research published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (Nov/Dec 2006) has revealed that fathers of two year olds who used more varied vocabulary when speaking with their children showed better expressive language skills at age 3.

  • Between the ages of 18 months and 2 1/2 years, a child's vocabulary is likely to grow at a phenomenal rate. Children as young as two use a process known as fast mapping, where they can infer a word's meaning from the context (both linguistic and nonlinguistic) in which it is used to make quick and accurate guess.

  • Vocabulary knowledge is related to reading comprehension - children with larger vocabularies are better able to understand what they read.

  • As a child's vocabulary grows, he is able to learn new words more easily - a finding termed the "Matthew Effect" based on the biblical reference to the book of Matthew ("the rich get richer and the poor get poorer").

  • High quality child care during the first three years of life has also been linked to a greater expressive vocabulary at age 3 according to a study conducted by The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

  • According to Jim Trelease, author of the Read-Aloud Handbook, "rare words" in particular play a crucial role in learning to read and succeeding in school, as opposed to "common" vocabulary that is mostly used in regular conversations.

If having a large vocabulary is so important as a child enters Kindergarten, what can you do as a parent to strengthen your child's vocabuarly at an early age?

Things that you are likely already doing: reading, talking, singing, and playing....together. Here are 5 tips to help you build your child's vocabulary through your everyday experiences.

1. Talk. Narrate your activities throughout your day as you do them together. For example, as you are cooking dinner you might tell your child, "First I'm going to chop these onions, then put a little oil in the pan to sauté them. Wow...they smell wonderful. Can you smell them?"

2. Hold a conversation. Even more important than talking to your child, is having a conversation with him. If you have an infant, you can hold a "conversation" with your baby by responding appropriately to his babbles. In doing so, your child will learn that he can communicate with you. If your child is able to speak, try asking him about his day or hold a conversation about a fond memory. Talking about past events, not only builds his language skills, but aids in his autobiographical memory development.

3. Label things in your environment. Point out words on a sign or a menu in a restaurant, or numbers on a clock. As your child develops expressive language skills, he's likely to ask "What's that?" or "What's this?" - so be sure to engage his curiosity! Most of your child's first words will actually be nouns.

4. Read. Books are the perfect opportunity to expose children to new vocabulary because they contain words that your child may never hear in your day-to-day conversations. If you come to an unusual word in your story, try using the picture to help him understand what the word means, or use a synonym. By reading just 3 books per week, a child's vocabulary can increase by 15 to 40%.

5. Pretend play. Whether you have an elaborate play kitchen or just a cardboard box, pretend play has been linked to expressive language development because it provides more vocabulary enriching opportunities than other types of play (such as playing with blocks or puzzles).

What you DO with your child, however, is just as important as what you DON'T do. Some other important things to remember:

  • Watching television does not provide your child with the type of interactive communication that is necessary to learn language. DON'T rely on TV shows (even educational ones) to do your job as a parent. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero television exposure for children under the age of 2.

  • To be present with your child - body AND mind. Everyday experiences are learning experiences, and children often need a parent to engage their curiosity and support their skills. DON'T be on your smart phone (or plugged into some other form of technology) nonstop in the presence of your child. Be present, be mindful, be engaging, be responsive, and be your child's teacher.

  • "Baby talk" has its place. DON'T speak in a constant blabber of "goo-goo, gaa-gaa" to your child. There is research that suggests that children exposed to complex language, have higher language skills.

  • Quality of words, not just quantity, counts too. Language development is a reciprocal process. Parents need to be responsive, engaging, and hold conversations with their children. DON'T talk your child's ear off just for the sake of talking. Make your words and interactions matter.

For more information on speech and language development, tips and developmental milestones, please visit

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