Words are powerful things. They are the keys we use to unlock meaning, allowing us to understand new information and ideas. They are the tools we use to construct and share our own thoughts, giving us a voice.
A broad, rich vocabulary – the words we recognise and know how to use – allows a child to understand and enjoy the things they read, to learn about the world around them, and to express themselves and their thoughts so that people will listen. Research suggests that a strong vocabulary in childhood is linked to future success and happiness, both at school and in later life. A rich vocabulary allows children to understand the books they read and the ideas the teacher shares at school, meaning they can take an active part in lessons and make good progress.
If we want our children to grow their vocabularies, here are four things to think about when supporting them:
1. A little more conversation
Talking to your child is great. Talking with your child might just be even better.
Genuine two-way conversation (dialogic talk, as it’s known) is related to children’s later language development, especially when children are very young. So asking a child a question or asking what they think about something, listening to their reply, and then responding is one of the simplest ways of building their vocabulary and language skills. It might be about something educational – a book you’re reading or a game you’re playing – but it could just as easily be about which loaf of bread to buy at the shop. The back-and-forth of genuine conversation helps children to learn the words and patterns that make up language.
2. Reading together
While talk is the foundation of a child’s growing vocabulary, books provide another crucial source of language learning. The language of books, even books aimed at the very youngest children, is different to spoken language, so reading widely and being read to is a wonderful source of new words and new patterns of language. Children will also come across the same words in different contexts, helping them to form a better idea of their meaning.
Storytime can be very special and the longer we can keep it going with primary-aged children the better. Depending on your child’s age and where they are on the journey to learning to read, some time to read to them and some time to listen to them read is likely to be useful. Also, carving out some time to talk about books will help to unpick any misunderstandings and will help them to use the language and words of the text.
3. Recasting language
A popular approach used in primary schools to help children learn new words or phrases is to recast children’s comments back to them, using a slightly different pattern of language. This might be to help them learn a quirk of grammar:
Child: The rabbit goed away!
Teacher: That’s right, the rabbit went away. He went into his hole.
Or to introduce them to a new word:
Child: She’s so tired.
Teacher: Yes! She looks exhausted, doesn’t she?
This is a nice, easy way of modelling words for children without correcting them or turning language learning into a big thing.
4. Keeping it fun
The last thing we want as parents is to be constantly correcting our children or giving them great big lists of words to learn. Learning to use language should be a joyful experience and, for most children, playing with words and language is a source of great fun. It is no coincidence that many jokes rely on a pun, such as our current household favourite:
Did you hear the joke about the wrapping paper? It was tearable.
Playing with language, whether through jokes (even ones like that), keeping an eye out for unusual words, or playing word games is a fun, simple way of encouraging an interest in language that will serve your child well for their whole life.
Most children’s vocabulary will grow naturally as they get older, soaking up new words and phrases from conversations with you, their friends, and their teachers, and from the books, programmes, games, and websites they enjoy. As with everything, this happens at a different rate from person to person and situation to situation. If you have any concerns about your child’s language development, talk to their teacher and they should be able to offer advice and support.
If you are interested in the importance of vocabulary development in education, you can find out more in the free report, Why Closing the Word Gap Matters.