Encouraging an Expanding Vocabulary

(This post is dedicated to my dad, Bernard B. Birger for always using big words with me and describing complex concepts in great detail, even when I was only three years old.)

Wow, Julia is absorbing language like a sponge on steroids. The other day I casually mentioned to my husband that a friend of ours is “a bit of a boozer” and we both had to avoid eye contact and stifle our laughter when our eighteen month old daughter repeated the word “boozer” about six times in a row. Oy, I really do have to watch what I say around her!

She is definitely in a sensitive period for language acquisition and it’s not going to stop any time soon. In fact, the sensitive period for language begins before birth and lasts until at least seven years old. So, what can we do to encourage our children to expand their vocabulary in ways that will actually serve them? (Because I’m guessing that knowing the word ‘boozer’ isn’t really critical to her healthy development)

There are LOTS of ways to encourage a large, expanding vocabulary, so here are my top five favorite ways to support a child’s language development. An added benefit is that many of these things also prepare young children for reading! So here they are:

1.     Never underestimate your child’s ability to absorb language. Children will learn the words they are exposed to, whether they’re single syllable words or three and four syllable words. So why not use big words? One of Julia’s favorites right now is “massive.” We often talk about the “massive tree” at the dog park or the “massive whale” in one of her storybooks.

 2.    Read, read, and read some more. Reading books is one of the best ways you can support an expanding vocabulary. But remember number one, above. Even very young children can benefit from being read materials above their ability to fully grasp. Of course, if you lose their interest, then go back to books you know your children enjoy. And if they seem to have little or no interest in books, just look at the pictures together, point out the things you see and ask them questions about the pictures they’re looking at. For example: “Can you find the apple?,” “What animal is that?” “What do you think that silly chicken is doing now?”

 3.    Offer synonyms. Children learn language through exposure and context, so by offering synonyms, you’re helping your child to learn many words with the same meaning. So the tree at the dog park isn’t just massive, it’s huge, enormous, gigantic, and colossal too! But don’t be surprised when your two year old reminds you that evergreen trees are ‘coniferous’ and they don’t lose their leaves (or needles) in autumn.

 4.   Rhyme, Sing and Alliterate. Young people (and adults) love to sing, rhyme, and alliterate, probably because they’re such effective learning and problem solving tools. One of the great things about this one is that you can play these kinds of games absolutely anywhere! We especially like to sing and rhyme in the car. It keeps us occupied while we’re stuck in traffic, and it’s just plain fun! (OK, the truth is, we’re never stuck in traffic because we live in Bend, OR, but maybe YOU get stuck in traffic sometimes, so try singing, rhyming, and alliterating the next time you’re stuck in the car) Oh and one more thing, coming up with words that begin with the same letter or rhymes with the same number of syllables as a previous stanza are also good memory games for adults. Let’s keep those neurons firing, people!

 5.    Offer definitions. As children begin to get a solid grasp of language they start to get curious about some of the nuances therein. For instance, a friend of mine recently told me that her two and a half year old son asked her “What means ‘life,’ Mama?” Defining words can be a challenge because we probably have not even considered the definitions of many of the words we use every day. But I think it’s worthwhile to give it a try and if you really can’t come up with anything, then do what my mom always told me to do, go look it up!

I’m sure you’re already doing many of these things with your kids, but I thought that by listing them, I might remind you to do them more frequently and more intentionally. Our time with our young children is going by so quickly that before we know it they’ll be applying to college (it really feels that way, doesn’t it?!) So this week, pay special attention to supporting your child to build a stellar vocabulary that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

And have a super, fantastic, wonderful, lovely, superb, and joyful week.

Love, Shelly

6 comments
julievalie
julievalie

I'm so impressed too by my 3,5 yo. She's learning French (me, you probably guessed it) and English (from Daddy). We participate in a child psychology study (in English with McGill) and her vocabulary in English is to the level of a 6 yo ! In French, she uses transition words such as "therefore" "all of a sudden" when she tells us her invented stories. I think story telling (without books) is another good way to expand vocabulary. We invented story for bed time after the books, when the lights are closed. And now, she invents stories, and I think it helps her test those new words. At the beggining, she would say a lot of "and all of a sudden" and some were misplaced and she probably realized it.

For younger child, sign language is supposed to help later on.

KendraCunov
KendraCunov

in addition to 'life', Trent asked me what 'soul' meant the other day (!!!)

One that kind of stumped me the other day was trying to define 'know' & explain the difference between 'no' & 'know' - so fun!

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

Hey @julievalie I agree! I'm not sure why I didn't include multiple languages in my post but we've been doing sign language with Julia since she was about 9 months old. I think it really helped her communicate before she was able to speak and she still uses it now for extra emphasis. I had heard somewhere that bi-lingual children are usually slower to pick up language because they're processing both but then they excel later on, but your example seems to dispute that! Thank you so much for sharing this. I love what you said about making up stories without books too. That is a challenge for me, my stories end up being pretty boring :( Maybe I'll take a storytelling class! Do you have any tips for how to tell a compelling made up story?

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

@KendraCunov Yes, super fun, and kind of confusing! I love it when children ask us questions that have us consider our own thoughts and beliefs. What did you tell him about what 'soul' means?! Love you Kendra!

julievalie
julievalie

@AwakeShelly Have the child choose a season and or a time of day, then an animal, a name, a place, an action. And with that in mind starts a story and add another animal and other actions. The first animal can be put in a situation where he has a problem and the other(s) animal(s) can help him. This gets emotional knowledge at the same time.