improve your child's vocabulary

In this post, I will show you 5 powerful ways to improve your child’s vocabulary to set them up for success in school and life!

Did you know that the size of your child’s vocabulary as they enter school can be used to predict their academic success years later?

It’s a crucially important area! Having a strong vocabulary will help your child to learn to read more easily, as well as to engage with all areas of the curriculum (even subjects like math and science are dependent on a strong language foundation!) And it’s not all about academics- it will help them socially, too.

You could say that there is an explosion of vocabulary in the first six years of life!

I’ll break down what vocabulary is and what’s actually involved in learning new words. But more than that, I’ll show you what you can do as a parent to help your child to learn new words and key ways to improve their vocabulary with lots of strategies and ideas. You can also check out my big book of 50 easy exercises to get your toddler talking.

These strategies are simple but effective, and mean that you as a parent can massively improve your child’s vocabulary!

5 powerful ways to improve your child's vocabulary


What is vocabulary and why is it important?

There are more than 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. How many of them do you think you know? How many do you use on a daily basis?

Our vocabulary is all the words we know and can use. In childhood, our vocabulary provides the building blocks for understanding and using language. The words we know are also the tools we use for thinking- our vocabulary helps us to generate and share ideas, negotiate, problem-solve internally and aloud, and participate in life.

Our vocabulary also forms the building blocks for literacy and learning- if we don’t have a strong foundation, it will be so much harder to learn to read and write.

Vocabulary is much more than just knowing some big words!

It’s important to remember that vocabulary involves both being able to understand and use words. There is a lot involved in both of these things and it’s a key part of improving your child’s vocabulary. You will need to think about improving both parts- the words they understand, and the words they can actually say.

How do children learn new words?

improve your child's vocabulary

Children learn new words in everyday conversations and situations. For example: playing, listening to stories and engaging in classroom interactions.

The research on word learning shows that young children are able to capture aspects of what a word means by the contextual information present when the word is used in natural situations.

Children first learn a word through developing a general understanding of its meaning but they might not always use it correctly.

For example, a child might first use ‘dog’ only to refer to their own dog, and then they may use dog for other four legged animals about the size of their own dog. Once they hear ‘dog’ in a range of contexts, their knowledge of ‘dog’ develops.

So, children learn the meaning of a word by hearing the word in lots of different situations. This is crucial and underpins all of the ideas that follow- repetition is necessary to improve your child’s vocabulary. Repeat the word when reading and when out and about. Use it in different ways and at different times. Build your child’s understanding of this word!


improve your child's vocabulary

1) Teach meaningful words

Think about a time recently when you learned a new word. Why did you need to learn this word? What motivated you to find out its meaning and to remember it?

We learn new words for a functional purpose- for developing an interest, because we are required to understand an activity, or possibly even to avoid negative consequences (it’s embarrassing if you’re the only person who doesn’t understand an instruction!)

Children need the same kind of motivation to learn new words. This means that we need to target words that are likely to be interesting and useful for their learning and daily lives.

Target words need to be individualized to meet the needs of the child and should:

  • relate to meaningful contexts
  • link in with what’s happening in school
  • help the child to communicate their ideas and interests
  • be words that they need to interact with others

2) Teach useful words- make sure you teach lots of different types of words!

As well as thinking about your child’s motivation to learn words and how the words relate to your child’s real life experiences, we also need to think about which words will be the most useful.

There are different types of words.

  • Naming Words (Nouns)
  • Action Words (Verbs)
  • Describing Words (Adjectives and Adverbs)
  • Location Words (Prepositions)

Children need to learn words from each group to understand language and to express their ideas effectively.

This will result in ‘a balanced diet of words’.

Why not create a word web for your child based on a a topic they are interested in, or a story book that would interest them.

Put the topic in the centre of the web and have four or five words from each of the different types of words around it.


For example, if the topic was RIDING THE BUS, the target words might be:

Naming words: bus, seat, road, window

Action words: sit, drive, sing, stop

Describing words: noisy, bumpy, long, slow

Location words: first, on, after, in

If the topic was the BEACH, the target words might be:

Naming words: beach, sand, bucket, crab

Action words: swim, dig, build

Describing words: sandy, cold, tallest, slowly

Location words: behind, underneath, in

3) Teach the Word in Different Ways

When I think about a time that I learnt a new word, I needed someone to:

Define the word: tell me what it is, tell me what it does, and provide a dictionary definition.

Contextualize the word: to show the item if possible, hooking into my prior knowledge and experiences- where might I have seen it before?

Extend the meaning: Where would I use it, where would I find it, why would I use it?

Explain the sound patterns: to tell me how to say it, and tell me words that are similar or associated (this information helped me to recall how to say the word).

Breaking a word down like this can be a powerful way to improve your child’s vocabulary! But how exactly can you apply it to your child?

How to Define a Word

Give child friendly definitions:

  • Focus on the word’s everyday use
  • Use language that your child is likely to understand
  • Refer to experiences your child can relate to
  • Describe the look, feel, touch, sound, smell/taste where appropriate

Example: A bus is bigger than a car. It has lots of seats so people can all go on it together.

How to Contextualize the Word

  • Use the new word frequently
  • Link the new word to prior knowledge and experiences,
  • Use visual representations where relevant.
  • Use the new word in a variety of contexts that highlight: functions, location, and sensory characteristics (look, fee, smell and/or taste).

Example: Sometimes our class goes on a bus. Can you remember when we all went on a bus? Can you tell me what the bus looked like?

How to Extend the Meaning

  • Link the word to known words with similar meanings.
  • Use visual organisers such as word webs to show how words are related.
  • Discuss the category of the word e.g. clothing, sport, transport.
  • Make grammatical connections e.g. some apples, a pair of gloves
  • Build up word associations by pairing the word with a known word- e.g. gift and present.

Example: A bus is something that takes us places like a car or a train. A bus goes on the road just like a car or a truck. This bus is going into town. What other places do buses go?

How to Teach Sound Patterns

Teaching sound patterns might sound a little technical, but it’s a fantastic thing for parents to get into the habit of doing. Teaching your child about sound patterns (or ‘phonological awareness’) will have lots of benefits for their overall language and literacy.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Identify the number of syllables in the word (get into the habit of clapping out words).
  • Talk about long and short words.
  • Generate rhyming words e.g. ‘kind’ rhymes with ‘find’. Encourage your child to think of a rhyming word.
  • Identify any words within the word e.g. ‘beside’ has two words- ‘be’ and ‘side.’
  • Discuss other words that have the same beginning sounds or endings.

Example: Let’s think about the word elephant. That’s kind of a long word, it has three claps! What sound does elephant start with? Can you think of other words that start with that sound?

4) Provide a language rich environment

A language rich context is a fundamental base for children’s incidental learning. This one is essential! Again, this is massively powerful and underpins all of the above strategies to improve your child’s vocabulary.

We need to provide opportunities for great conversations where adults are responsive to the child’s interests. A language rich environment in the classroom and at home, and great conversations provide an ideal context for word learning.

This can be as simple as having a range of interesting books, displays of new words, poems and songs, and the opportunity for drama and role play. It can also involve using words for various purposes- e.g. using shopping list, the opportunity to listen to and give instructions to others.

A great conversation is one in which the child has an opportunity to make spontaneous comments, and to ask questions. As a parent, you need to establish a shared understanding, respond to your child’s interests, listen to, acknowledge and value your child’s contributions, and ensure that each speaker has talking time.

5 powerful ways to improve your child's vocabulary

5) Combine incidental learning with explicit instruction

Incidental learning is about providing lots of opportunities for your child to hear the word in a variety of activities- during your daily routines such as meal times and bath time, and as you are out and about naturally in your day.

Explicit instruction involves purposefully giving your child opportunities across to learn a word. It might be that you have a new book about animals and you have picked some words to expose your child too. Remember to think about more than just the naming words- which describing words, doing words and location words can you teach here, too?

It’s now time to plan some specific goals for your child! Pick some target words (include different types of words), plan both incidental learning and explicit instruction and teach these words in different ways. Remember that it should be relevant and motivating for your child. And don’t forget that it should all take place within a responsive and interactive conversation!

Want a little more?

Grab my free copy of the Speech and Language Strategies Essential Cheat Sheets. Print off and use to help with these strategies to boost your child’s speech and language. Enjoy!

speech and language cheat sheet

I hope you enjoyed these ideas to improve your child’s vocabulary, and that you can use some of them in everyday life. I’d love to hear how you get on if you do- comment and let me know what your experiences of targeting vocabulary have been!

Please also share if you enjoyed it- every share is much appreciated!

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