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5 Ways to Support Vocabulary Development

ELA

It all boils down to this: Label everything. No, we aren’t talking about putting your child’s name on every piece of clothing, the diaper bag and backpack or even the 438 sippy cups in your kitchen. We’re talking about how attaching a word or phrase to everything supports early language and vocabulary development in young children. With more than one million words in the English language and the average adult using 20,000-30,000 words, there’s a lot of room for labeling and growth for young children who start with zero. 

On average, it takes children 12 to 24 months to begin speaking, but they begin learning language from birth. Keep in mind that every child develops at his or her own pace. If you have questions about your child’s language and vocabulary development, speak with your pediatrician. In the meantime, here are a few tricks of the trade that you can use to help support a young child’s early language and vocabulary development.

5 Ways to Support a Young Child’s Language & Vocabulary Development

1. Read to Boost Language Acquisition

Let’s get the most familiar one out of the way first. Reading books every day with young children increases their vocabulary and language development. It’s why pediatricians often ask about books during well-baby check ups, libraries offer weekly storytimes, and early childhood educators collect piles of books to read during circle time. Books can expose children to words and situations beyond their current surroundings while also reinforcing the familiar. However, for the greatest impact on early language development, adult-child conversations about the books have a more significant impact on language development than through reading alone.

Reading Tip: As you read with a young child, pause and ask questions. What do you think happens next? Can you point to the orange ball on the page? Is the baby hiding behind the couch or under the blanket? (You might be the one answering your own questions and that’s okay! It’s part of the process of introducing young children to more and more words.) You can also connect the book to children’s everyday lives and the world around them. For example, this makes me think of when we went on our walk yesterday and stopped to pet the neighbor’s cat. What did she feel like?

2. Make Small Talk to Teach Conversation Skills

From the beginning, one-on-one vocal interactions with loving adults who engage in infant-directed speech promotes children’s vocabulary development. Children learn the give and take of conversation by practicing how it works. A child begins to make the connection between sounds and attention every time he or she babbles expressively and an adult turns to make eye contact and respond. Plus, early childhood development research shows that young children gain a larger vocabulary when the adults in their lives respond to their babbling. 

Tip: Respond to an infant babbling by waiting until they pause in the “conversation,” imitating the sounds, and expanding those sounds into whole sentences. Make eye contact with your child and practice the give and take of conversation.

3. Pair a Word with a Movement or One of the Five Senses
Young children’s developing brains make connections based on what they experience. When a parent or teacher pairs a word with a movement, a child more easily makes the connection between the word and the movement or object. For example, picking up a child while also saying the word UP helps a child pair the word with the action of being picked up. The same concept works for pairing a word with one of the senses, too. The more senses a child uses, the greater the learning! For example, helping a child turn the water ON to wash HANDS in COLD water increases the understanding of those words. (Make sure to WASH BETWEEN the FINGERS.)

4. Diaper Changes, Washing Hands, and Bath Time

In the first year alone, the average baby requires her diaper changed nearly 4,000 times, takes hundreds of baths, and needs her hands cleaned 1.5 million times. (Okay, that hand washing number MIGHT be an exaggeration.) All of those routine hygienic moments give parents and preschool and daycare teachers a lot of face-to-face conversation time. Use those moments to talk about parts of the face and body. Make eye contact and repeat the sounds that your baby makes. Pause and wait for your little one to “talk” back as you model for her conversation. Repeat words like “wash, wash, wash” or “scrub, scrub, scrub” as a child—you guessed it—washes and scrubs hands. 

5: Use Sign Language with Children of All Abilities

Typically, fine and gross motor skills develop faster than the skills needed for speech. Using sign language with young children of all abilities gives them a way to communicate long before they can form and say the words. Start by using just a few basic signs in your daily routines, such as PLEASE, MORE, ALL DONE, and THANK YOU. Those four little signs can make a big difference in your child’s ability to express himself and for you to understand each other. Plus, this is another way to pair a word with a movement, which increases a young child’s understanding of a word. 

Tip: Be consistent and patient. It will take time for your child to make the connection between the word, sign, and concept. Plus, a child’s first attempts at signing might look quite different from your version. 

What is your favorite way to help support early language development?

We’d love to know what works for you in the classroom or at home. Post in the comments.

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