Help build your young child’s vocabulary

Specific skills and strategies to teach young children to use sophisticated vocabulary.

You can help build a child's vocabulary by using sophisticated words in real-world contexts.
You can help build a child's vocabulary by using sophisticated words in real-world contexts.

A grandfather noticed his grandson playing with a canoe paddle, poking in and out of the water. His grandfather joined him and asked “Are you practicing paddling? Do you know how to feather a paddle? Let me show you how to use a paddle.” Then, he demonstrated with the paddle; how to dig the blade into the water so that it is perpendicular to the side of the boat and then flattening the blade parallel to the boat when moving it forward for the next stroke. The grandfather carefully explained how this helped to move the canoe along faster and how to use his wrist to twist the paddle with minimum effort. The boy listened carefully and practiced with his grandfather. After his grandfather left, he continued to practice for a long time.

What this grandfather was doing, among other things, was helping to build his grandson’s vocabulary by using sophisticated words in a real-world context. He first established shared focus by joining the child’s play. He then proceeded to use words that were new to the child and linked them to the demonstration. The child had a concrete process (moving the canoe paddle in his hands) to make this a hands-on learning experience, which enhanced the oral and visual learning.

Molly F. Collins from Vanderbilt University’s Department of Teaching and Learning has been studying children’s vocabulary acquisition. She has found evidence of the benefits of teaching sophisticated vocabulary to preschool children. By sophisticated vocabulary, Collins means “words that are high level, communicate subtleties in detail and are less common in every day parlance.” Sometimes the term rare words is used. In her article “The Importance of Discussing 50-Cent Words with Preschoolers,” published in Young Children, Collins discusses how children benefit when adults use rare words by:

  • Exposing children to new words and new concepts.
  • Clarifying differences in meaning.
  • Deepening knowledge of the meaning of words.
  • Repairing misunderstandings.
  • Priming children to value words and increase knowledge about word learning.

Early childhood educators have identified several skills to use when addressing the process of vocabulary-building. In the article “The Word Gap: Early Years Make the Difference,” Laura J. Colker suggests using the following strategies:

  • Use gestures and facial expressions to help children make sense of new words.
  • Talk with children and encourage children to talk with one another. Keep the conversation going by asking questions, making comments and inviting children to think and share their ideas.
  • Read to children daily, taking time to go over new words.
  • Think about new vocabulary words that might come up on a field trip as part of the experience.
  • Give children ample time to learn the meaning and uses of new words before moving onto other words.
  • Advocate for equity. Make sure all children have opportunities to learn and understand the meaning and uses of new words.

Other articles that address this topic include:

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.


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