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10 Tips for Expanding Your Child’s Vocabulary

by Shauna Smith Duty


A child’s brain is designed to capture and retain more information before the age of 10 than at any other time in life. According to 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary by Dr. Wilfred Funk and Norman Lewis (Galahad Books, 1970), people with a superior vocabulary are more likely to win better jobs than those with and inferior assortment of words in their verbal arsenal. Knowing these two facts, parents may want to prepare their child for success from the first “Mama” spoken. Do you want to expand you child’s vocabulary? Now is the best time to start.

Teaching a two-year-old Greek and Latin roots is unnecessary and impractical. However, parents can integrate these ten easy tips into day-to-day life to expand their child’s internal dictionary. Most likely you are practicing few of these tips in some capacity already, but tweaking your behavior could ultimately provide a better future for your precious little one.

Ten Tips
1. Talk to Your Child
The baby talk moms use to communicate with infants has a name, momese, and researchers have deemed it beneficial for infants learning how to communicate verbally. So, from the first hours of your child’s life, talk to her!

Surrounding your child with words may be more important than you think. A 1991 study by psychologist Janellen Hutenlocher with the University of Chicago documented the vocabulary growth of 22 children from the age of 16 months to 24 months. Half of the children had “very talkative” mothers, and the others had mothers who were “the least talkative”. Children in the word-rich environment learned 295 more words by the age of 24 months than their counterparts. In Hutenlocher’s article, published in Developmental Psychology (March, 1991), she wrote, “Hence, exposure is clearly critical to the acquisition of vocabulary.”

For older children who have mastered some vocabulary and are working toward higher levels of language development, Carol Garhart Mooney, author of Use Your Words (Redleaf Press, 2005), indicates parents need to correct improper word usage. Adults tend to giggle when a child misinterprets a saying or mispronounces a word, but the child is left with only laughter and a sense of being cute if we don’t take the time to correct him. In short, he’s the brunt of joke he does not understand.

Mooney suggests, “Meaning is the key element when we have conversations with very young children.” When a child misspeaks, she says adults should explain the error and how to correct it. “This clarification is essential to help children make sense of the world.”

2. Pay Attention When Your Child Speaks
One of the best ways to converse with a child is at their level. By bending down to eye-level, an adult proves the child has captured her complete attention. This small act builds a child’s confidence and allows an adult to focus on what the child has to say. Parents should strive to provide support and encouragement whenever their child speaks. Adults often say, “Shhhh!” or, “Not now, honey” when a child tries to talk. If you must quiet a child temporarily, always return to him, on his level, and ask to listen to what he had to say.

No one likes to be interrupted. It’s rude! We teach our children not to interrupt and should hold ourselves to the same standard. Sometimes, though, adults have to interrupt children to move forward with an activity or conversation. Extend the courtesy you expect from your child by using mannerly words, like “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 engage in conversation with someone who does not want to talk, you probably know that asking “yes” or “no” questions quickly stifles a conversation. The same is true with children. Mooney says, “For any number of reasons, most adults are much better at talking at children than they are at talking with them.” To engage a child in conversation that will exercise his vocabulary, ask questions that require in-depth answers. For instance, instead of asking a child if she wants pasta for lunch, ask which kind of pasta she wants, and why she likes this particular kind. The more a child has to use her words, the more adept she will become at conversation, and vocabulary will improve naturally.

“Put Reading First” (June, 2003), a report by the Partnership for Reading for professional educators, advises teachers 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 not only fosters a love for literature, but also improves their vocabulary by increasing exposure to words. “Reading aloud is particularly helpful when the reader pauses during reading to define and unfamiliar word and, after reading, engages the child in a conversation about the book,” according to “Put Reading First”.

Charlotte Mason, a nineteenth 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, she would have them narrate longer pieces. Once they mastered this skill, Mason required older students to write their narrations. Many homeschooling families practice the Charlotte Mason Method today. This recounting of information exercises thoughts, language and vocabulary, and the oral exercise can be practiced after bedtime reading.

5. Limit Television
Language is symbolism. Sounds stand for things, actions, and descriptions. Because of this, television can be detrimental to language development. The brain does not have to come up with representative images for television because an image is on the 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 is brain exercise, and it literally causes a brain to grow in size and capacity.

6. Understand the Hierarchy of Word Comprehension
Because nouns are symbols that represent tangible things, they are the first words a child understands. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, a 20-month old child’s vocabulary consists mostly of nouns, no matter which language he speaks. Simple verbs and adjectives come next. Consider the progression of vocabulary in children you know. Common words, after nouns, might include verbs like run, jump, eat, play, and adjectives to describe emotions, colors, and sizes.

Parents can focus teaching based on children’s natural progression of understanding. When a child first learns to speak, they will learn mostly nouns. Sit with your child on the floor and pull items from the toy box, then name, don’t describe, the items. Children can comprehend and learn to describe how the items look and feel later. In early language development, focus on nouns.

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

7. Play Games With Your Child
Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood was a booming success with young viewers because he spoke directly to each child as if no other child had his attention. Children thrive on attention, and you can use this as a teaching opportunity, like Fred Rodgers did.

Play games with your child. From the familiar unnamed games like “What sound does an (insert animal here) 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 play them with friends. They’ll follow your example.

The Internet also provides a resource for educational entertainment. Word games for preschoolers to middle schoolers are available at no cost at Please remember, any time children are on the Internet, a parent should supervise.

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?

If your children attend daycare or school, your home may be set up for relaxation and entertainment. This is not bad! However, 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? You can build this kind of environment in your home to make learning a lifestyle. Discussions will transpire if you provide a conducive atmosphere. In this word-rich educational environment, a good student dictionary and thesaurus, and a set of encyclopedias will provide hours of educational entertainment for your child and family.

9. Introduce a Second Language
In Sweden, young children are taught 3 languages. Some preschools and elementary schools in the US offer a second language, and television programs such as Dora the Explorer teach children a bilingual vocabulary. 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 his 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 to strive for a better vocabulary by showing them adults can learn, too. Remember the research that showed children of talkative parents learned more words than children of less talkative parents? This research dealt with toddlers. As babies grow into children, they still learn from their environment. They imitate parents, brothers, sisters, and teachers. 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.” For the rest of your child’s life, much of the world will base their image of him on the words that flow from his mouth. 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. Words can create and destroy. 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.

Shauna Smith Duty is a freelance writer and homeschooling mother of two in Roanoke, Texas. Visit to read more of Shauna’s articles and find out about her latest projects.



Sat, Mar 03, 2007 8:26am

I used signs! I was SO lucky to have the signs because he was a late talker and there was no other way to communicate with him

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