The importance of vocabulary in children’s development

Vocabulary is most often acquired incidentally, either at home, school, or within the community, but here are some of the ways in which we can increase our children’s vocabulary.

Vocabulary, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, refers to “all the words known and used by a particular person or “all the words that exist in a particular language or subject”, yet very few people sit up and take notice of the importance of vocabulary within our lives and take it for granted.

When we communicate, we use and manipulate words. This manipulation is imperative as it helps to ensure that our messages are conveyed accurately and appropriately when conversing with others and quite simply helps us get our message across.  The building blocks of our messages? Vocabulary, plain and simple in either oral or written formats. Stahl (2005) accurately describes “vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition but also implies how that word fits into the world.” The questions that come to the fore are how is vocabulary acquired and what can we do to increase it?

Vocabulary is most often acquired incidentally, either at home, school, or within the community, but here are some of the ways in which we can increase our children’s vocabulary:

  • Encourage reading! This is the BEST way to learn new words. There have been numerous studies which show that children who read often have wider vocabularies than those who don’t. It does not only mean that your child has to read on their own. They can also partake in shared / paired reading with you, listen to audiobooks, or have you reading aloud to them, as this provides access to information they wouldn’t necessarily choose to read, which leads to exploration of new words and conversations. When you come across a word that is not understood, instead of interrupting the reading flow, provide a definition through a synonym and then once you have finished reading, go back to the word and repeat it with its definition. This aids with exploring, understanding, and using new words.
  • The exploration of new words. This can be done through reading or listening to books, plays, songs and podcasts. Bringing these words to life is so important – making use of visual pictures, discussion, and working with words helps to increase the understanding of how the word fits into the world.
  • Increasing your child’s ability to understand and find the meaning of the new words that you have explored. Whether your child asks you for a meaning, identifies a word by reading it within its context, or looks it up in a dictionary, it’s of utmost importance that your child doesn’t feel embarrassed about finding out the meaning of new words. By showing your interest in a word, your child’s interest in words grows and ultimately their vocabulary grows.
  • Talking and having two-way conversations with your child is important in the development of vocabulary. You don’t need to have specific topics to talk about, anything goes here. There are constant opportunities for increasing vocabulary within our environment – even finding words on signposts, billboards and adverts while driving allows us to bring attention to new words. Remember, that through using open-ended questions you and your child are sharing and exploring vocabulary together.

●     Placing new words into context. A word that your child hears or reads in a meaningful sentence is much more fun to learn than one that is in isolation or part of a boring list. For example, if you were to discuss the word inconsolable, try to describe a friend who has lost a toy and is inconsolable. This will be easier for your child to understand, as it is within a context that is relatable. Otherwise, providing a context of your own in which you use the word yourself and then ask your child to provide their own example of using the word within their own context is a great idea to continually place and explore a word.

  • Having fun. Play games such as Scrabble, Boggle, I spy, Guess Who? or complete word searches and crosswords together. Write out stories and have fun.

Finally, remember that learning by doing is the best way. When we use vocabulary effectively and appropriately in our real-world and everyday experiences, interpreting and storing them in the deeper part of our brains becomes easier. As Smith (2008) mentions, three essential elements to effectively improve vocabulary is through “integration, meaningful use, and repetition” . The importance of vocabulary cannot be downplayed in effective communication. This is why we need to intentionally build up our children’s vocabulary. For more information, visit Bellavista School’s website


Article supplied by Anna Tyranes, H.O.D Speech Therapy at Bellavista School

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