As my youngest son prepares to enter school my attention has been brought back to the idea of vocabulary. Truthfully, this topic is never far from my thoughts as a speech and language pathologist, but recently I have been examining my son’s vocabulary more closely. That’s because I know that when he goes to school full-time he will be entering a new phase in his life. He will enter a world where the demand will be higher. More specifically, the demand on his language abilities. He will be required to follow multi-step directions without many cues, learn from a variety of different adults during group and individual contexts, engage in social situations with new peers (some who may be older), as well as prepare to master the academic concepts that are required learning for his year. I know! It seems like a lot for kindergarten! But this is the reality of what is happening in the classroom and having a strong vocabulary is one of the best ways I can prepare him to meet these new challenges.
As I watch my son play with his friends and chat with us at dinner, using diverse and richly descriptive words, I am not worried. He has had the lucky benefit of having a speechy mom who has been preparing him for this day since the moment he was born. However this time in my life brought to my attention the need to share this knowledge with other parents. The critical importance of helping all children develop a wide and rich vocabulary in the early years so each one can take that step into kindergarten with a little more confidence, and set the stage for growing success!
Let’s start off with some basic truths about vocabulary development in the early years that all parents should know and put to rest some common misconceptions.
1) Myth: Babies start learning words when they begin to talk.
As soon as babies are born they start to hear all the sounds in their language. Their little brains search for patterns in the way these sounds are put together and these patterns help them understand where words begin and end. Once they have identified some familiar patterns they start to attach meaning to what they are hearing and vocabulary learning begins. This can start as early as 5 months old with the recognition of baby’s own name. In a large-scale study researchers found that 10-month old babies had vocabularies (words they understood) ranging from 11 to 154 words, however these babies typically had not spoken their first word yet or were only saying a few small words. This means that word learning (also known as vocabulary learning) starts well before babies have started to talk. In addition, this trajectory continues as baby grows up. Simply put, young children will have a much larger vocabulary of words they understand compared to what adults actually hear them saying.
2) Myth: Children that are talking in full sentences have a strong vocabulary.
When a baby says their first words (typically between 9-14 months old) it is pretty simple to keep track of their vocabulary and know if it is small or large. However, as their vocabularies grow, as well as their grammatical skills, children start speaking in sentences and it can become increasingly difficult to know exactly how many words they actually understand. Or in other words, how large their vocabulary is. In a landmark study researchers found that by age 3 children from a high-socioeconomic status (high SES) had heard about 30 million words more than those from a low-socioeconomic status (low SES). As a result, by 3 years old these children had vastly different vocabularies. Children with from a high SES had an average vocabulary of over 1000 words and children from a low SES had average vocabularies of 500 words. Bottom line: just because a child can have a conversation with you does not mean they have a strong and diverse vocabulary.
3) Myth: The amount of vocabulary a child knows has nothing to do with reading.
The relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension has been recognized for several decades now. It is estimated that between 10-18% of children entering school will have difficulty learning to read even after being given sufficient opportunity. Of these children, most will have difficulty with language learning (or vocabulary) which directly impacts their ability to learn to read and understand what they have read.
On the other hand, children with large vocabularies typically go on to become strong readers. Since vocabulary knowledge plays a key role in understanding the words children hear when they are read to, or when they read to themselves, it is not hard to see why the more words a child knows, the better their reading skills will be.
4) Fact: The home environment has a direct impact on whether or not a child will develop a wide vocabulary by the time they enter school.
It has long been accepted that the quality of the home environment a child grows up in has a major impact on how well they will develop language (or not). However it is not as simple as saying a child who grows up in a wealthy home will have a stronger vocabulary than one who comes from an impoverished home. In fact, researchers have found 3 key factors of the home environment that play a central role in language development:
- The amount of shared book reading between parent and child
- The quality of child-parent interactions (e.g., the amount and type of words parents use when speaking to a child, as well as following a child’s lead in conversation)
- Providing age appropriate toys and books that encourage play and learning
Studies have also shown that these differences in the quality of home environment can be seen in families with children as young as 15 months of age.
5) Fact: A large vocabulary will have a positive impact on a wide variety of academic subjects such as math and science.
Upon entering school children may have the ability to use everyday words to communicate their message, but may not have the advanced vocabulary expected of them to be able to succeed with the demands of learning at school. For example, a child who understands the sophisticated words that will appear in math or science instruction such as divide, half, exclude, narrow, dissolve or habitat will be more likely to do better in these subjects. That’s because they will be able to understand the teacher’s instructions in learning activities more easily since they already know what these words mean, they will be able to use their knowledge of these words to help them understand the meaning of other words they don’t know as they are learning, and they will be able to use their understanding of these words to help them formulate questions to learn more about any given topic.
School is a wonderful place to become exposed to new words and learning in all areas. For children who enter with rich vocabularies the curriculum will offer many more learning opportunities. For those who enter without the necessary vocabulary, this type of language can be very overwhelming and have a negative impact on learning.
6) Fact: Children who know more words also learn words more quickly.
Vocabulary learning seems to be one of those resiliency skills with a profoundly cascading effect. From as early as the preschool years this phenomenon can be seen. Children who have larger vocabularies tend to learn words faster, but children with limited vocabularies tend to learn words at a slower rate. This trend appears to continue all the way through the school years so what begins as a small difference in vocabulary size when children are young, can turn into a monstrous division of skill level by the older years of school.
7) Myth: Talking to and reading to my child each day is enough to help them develop a strong vocabulary.
Parents and professionals alike would agree that speaking to and reading to children is a fundamental way to help them develop language skills. However, when it comes to ensuring kids have a strong vocabulary, just these basics aren’t enough. Children need to be exposed to a wide variety of new words regularly and it is estimated they need to hear a new word at least 12 times before it becomes integrated in their vocabulary. In addition, children need to have multiple opportunities to use and explore these new words themselves in different ways. Finally, adults need to help children learn to become active word learners. Teaching them how to use the knowledge they already have to figure out the meaning of new words, or to ask questions when a meaning is unclear.
8) Myth: Teaching a child vocabulary requires special knowledge, teaching skills and takes dedicated time during each day.
I’m hoping that this post wasn’t too daunting for the typical parent out there. My goal was not to frighten people and have them worry about their child’s vocabulary knowledge, but to highlight an important topic.
In truth, even though the topic of vocabulary learning can seem big and scary and something left up to only the professionals with multiple degrees, it is not! There are many small things parents can do at home that will go a long way. In fact you have already begun by reading this article!
To get everyone started helping their child develop strong vocabulary skills TODAY, Talking Together has made a free Word List Tracker available for download here. Adding even one new word a day (or per week if that is all you can manage right now!) will make a difference and start to put vocabulary learning into your regular daily routine. I will also be writing a follow-up post to this one entitled No Prep! No Print! No Extra Time! 4 Easy Things You Can Do To Build Your Child’s Vocabulary Today! You can check back later for that or you can sign up for Talking Together’s newsletter to receive that post straight to your inbox for free as soon as it comes out!
If you are really keen to learn more (and I hope you are!) I recommend the book Word Aware 2: Teaching Vocabulary In The Early Years by Stephen Parsons and Anna Branagan. Perfect for parents and early educators that want to make language learning come to life every day for the special children in their lives
Wishing you and your loved ones happy language learning together!
- Hoff, E. (2014) Language Development, 5th, Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
- Konza, D., (2010). Understanding the reading process, Research Into Practice, August, 1-8.
- Neuman, S. & Wright, T. (2014). The magic of words: Teaching vocabulary in the early childhood classroom, American Educator, Summer, 4-13.
- Parsons, S. & Branagan, A. (2016) Word Aware 2: Teaching Vocabulary In The Early Years, Speechmark Publishing Ltd., London, UK.
- Rvachew, S. (2010) Language Development and Literacy, retrieved online on April 28, 2017 at http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/sites/default/files/dossiers-complets/en/language-development-and-literacy.pdf