The connections are clear to researchers and teachers: Kids who know and use more words at age two lead the pack years later, when it’s time for kindergarten. They’re ahead in reading and math, and they even have better behavior and less anxiety.
So one big way you can set your child up for success is to help her build a big vocabulary. It turns out that the best way to do that actually changes as your child does.
- If your child is between one and two years old, quantity is most important: talk to her a lot!
- If your child is between two and three years old, variety and sophistication matter: start using more complex and unusual words, like browse instead of look, or parakeet instead of bird.
- If your child is between three and four years old, storytelling and explaining help her learn: Answer those “Why?” questions and talk about things that happened in the past. Doing so introduces abstract concepts, like before and because.
Best Word Builders
Simply talking, singing, and reading with your preschooler goes a long way toward growing his vocabulary. But you can pump up the word-learning power with these strategies, too.
1. Follow his interests.
If your two-year-old is delighted by dogs and cats, point out other animals you see, in person and in books. Is your four-year-old fascinated by dinosaurs? He’ll most likely be able to master big words like Velociraptor and Brachiosaurus. (And similarly, if he doesn’t care about the topic, he’ll be less likely to pick up those new and challenging words.) Remember, you can go beyond lists of creatures. Try introducing descriptive words, like herbivore or predator, and related words, such as fossil or reptile. Word associations or families help you branch out: What other animals are extinct? Are there any lizards living today? Could you go to a zoo and see them?
2. Play with words.
Preschoolers are often fascinated with the funny ways language can work. You can take a word and rhyme it (often, you can find a dozen rhymes for just one word! Just start reeling them off and watch your child jump in). You can use real words that sound silly, like hippopotamus or hubbub. Or you can make up your own silly words (remember the dinglehopper from The Little Mermaid?)
3. Skip the baby talk.
By the time she’s two years old, your child can already understand many basic words (and say 100 or more of them). So, she needs you to expose her to more descriptive and abstract terms now. That’s why you don’t need to be afraid of using them, whether you’re having a conversation or reading a book together. Tie abstract concepts, such as later to a specific event: Before dinner, you might say, “Later, after your bath, we’ll read a book together,” or “As soon as this timer rings, it will be your turn with that toy.” To build descriptive vocabulary, use synonyms for words your child knows so she can use context clues to start to grasp them: “Isn’t our puppy hilarious when she jumps?” or “This is the juiciest peach I have ever eaten!” Your child will not necessarily learn a new word on the first try, so repeat new words (and experiences she can describe) over and over.
4. Tell stories.
As they grow, preschoolers need to hear more descriptive and conceptual words. Listening to and telling stories helps because they describe events that happened in the past (or maybe even happen in the future). These kinds of stories contain abstract concepts, words that are new and different, and words that don’t have an immediate reference point. Instead, kids need to remember something that they previously experienced, or imagine something they will experience in the future. Share stories together, inviting your child to add his recollections or predictions to your own. Say you’re reading a book about a little bear who visits his grandmother. You might ask your child, “Remember when we went to visit your grandma? And went to the playground near her house?” You might need to define and supply some words for him, but he’ll learn them more quickly in this context.