Vocabulary Development in Childhood

by Care Speech 
13 January 2023

A child’s vocabulary is the words they can understand and use to express themselves. Children learn to talk by interacting with the people around them, and the language they are exposed to influences their vocabulary development. Vocabulary development in the early years is important.

Studies have shown that high-quality language exposure in the first three years positively impacts how easily children will learn to read, as well as their future academic success. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways parents and carers can help to enrich a child’s vocabulary development in the early years.

Tip 1. Talk, talk, talk to your child!

The more words your child hears in the first few years of life, the better opportunities they have to develop a varied and rich vocabulary.

  • Between the ages of 1 and 2, children need to be exposed to lots of words. Talking about what you and your child are doing is the easiest way to do this. Whether you are playing a game, bathing your child, cooking dinner, or hanging out the washing, let your child know what you are up to. Describe what you are doing, how you feel, and what you can see, smell, hear, touch or taste. This helps to give your child the language they need to talk about their world. You can also talk about what your child is doing or things they seem interested in. This will help them to connect words with the world around them. Just be careful not to overdo it - make sure you leave spaces for your child to speak to, so they can join in as soon as they are ready.
  • Between 2 and 3 years, children start understanding sentences and eventually use more sophisticated vocabulary. At this age, you can enhance your vocabulary by being specific about describing things. For example, you might use the word ‘parrot’ instead of the more general ‘bird’, or use a variety of words that mean similar things, such as say that someone went ‘racing across the yard’, as well as ‘running across the yard’. Remember to explain new words that you use or support your words with actions to help your child to know where to categorise them in their mind.
  • Between the ages of 3 and 4 years, children start to understand time. This is the perfect opportunity to start talking to them about things that happened in the past and things that are coming up. Start using words like yesterday, tomorrow, next week, soon, later and ‘on your birthday’. You can also start introducing concepts like ‘how many sleeps’ until an anticipated event.

Tip 2. Use ‘parentese’

Parentese is the name given to the high-pitched, sing-song voice with exaggerated facial expressions that some people use when they are talking to babies. While adults would likely find it patronising if someone spoke to them this way, research shows that this approach positively influences language and vocabulary development in the early years. Using this type of speech with babies and young toddlers is therefore recommended.

Tip 3. Read to them

Reading books is a great way to build your child’s vocabulary while also having fun. To make it an enjoyable experience, find a relaxed and comfortable space where your child can see the book and preferably also be face-to-face with you.

Have some fun making the story come to life by exaggerating the characters, building excitement, and talking about the pictures, as well as reading the words. You don’t need to stick to the script! Looking at and talking about the pictures is very beneficial for developing children’s vocabularies.

Books introduce children to a vast variety of experiences (many more than they could have in their own day-to-day routine), as well as the world of imagination and creativity. They also introduce them to the idea of storytelling, which is one of the important skills a child can develop for academic and social success. Remember – a favourite book can be read many times, each time bringing a new level of wonder and a deeper level of learning for your child.

Tip 4. Sing and play with words

Nursery rhymes are simple to learn and full of sophisticated vocabulary. Can you think of an easier and more enjoyable way to introduce your child to words like ‘twinkle’, ‘spout’ or ‘pail of water’? Doing the actions that go with the rhyme helps the child to learn the meaning of the words and is a fun way of connecting with your child.

Tip 5. Go out and about

New experiences naturally contain new vocabulary and allow your child to connect with a different environment. Going to the park, museum, zoo, or even shopping are fantastic ways to introduce your children to new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations.

Each of these senses offers a good opportunity to not only talk about what they can see but how they feel, what they touch, their likes and dislikes, and so much more. These are also good opportunities for your child to interact with other people so that they gain language experiences from them as well.

If you would like to book an initial consultation with a Speech Pathologist from our team, please contact us on 1300 086 280 or at [email protected]

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