4 Easy Ways to Build Your Child’s Vocabulary at Home

by Lindsay Barrett

Photo credit: PeopleImages, E+ Images/Getty Images

What image comes to mind when you hear, “learning vocabulary words?” A dictionary? A stack of flashcards? I think of the exhausting list of words to “define and write in a sentence to prepare for the quiz on Monday” assigned to me when my eighth grade class read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Today’s research has changed educators’ understandings, though, about how to best help students learn new words — not just for Monday’s quiz, but permanently. Many of those strategies can easily be turned into family habits. Consider trying these ideas at home:

Cultivate a fascination with words. Fostering kids’ interest in words encourages a lifelong habit of noticing new ones and retaining them. Whether it’s a tart apple or a mischievous face, simply commenting on interesting words or sharing just the right word for a particular circumstance is powerful modeling.

There are also plenty of book characters to emulate, too. My boys love Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. Nancy would never say great when she could say stupendous. She even boasts a whole book of favorite words, Fancy Nancy’s Favorite Fancy Words: From Accessories to Zany, by the same team, which could inspire kids to compile their own dictionaries. Our newest favorite vocabulary star is Jerome, featured in Peter H. Reynold’s The Word Collector. As avid collectors of anything that can be squirreled away in a bag or box, my kids love how Jerome writes words he likes on slips of paper and tapes them into categorized scrapbooks. The many appealing words in the text, from “short and sweet” drift to “two-syllable treat” hover can spark discussion and kids’ own word collecting.

Become (better than) a walking dictionary. In their acclaimed resource for educators, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, researchers Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan highlight the importance of intentionality when introducing new words to kids. It’s not realistic to stop and teach children the meaning of every new word they hear. Plus, they’d definitely get sick of it. Honing in on select high-utility words — one or two that are crucial to making sense of a picture book, for example — works well. Your best bet is to offer a brief and straightforward definition right when the word comes up.

Speaking of picture books, reading aloud is well documented as a powerful vocabulary booster. Studies show that picture books contain more diverse word choices than spoken language — even conversations between adults! Consider Elmore, a delightful new title by Holly Hobbie about a friendless porcupine. Precise, useful words like solitary and discouraged pepper the story, which provides the perfect context for explaining them in kid-friendly terms.

Work vocabulary into conversation and play. As the long-term ineffectiveness of cramming before a big test illustrates, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan emphasize that repeated experiences with a word help vocabulary learning stick. Experts Susan Neuman and Tanya Wright echo this in a review of research about vocabulary learning in early childhood, saying, “…frequency of exposure in a variety of meaningful contexts over an extended period of time enhances word learning.”

For parents and caregivers, this means the interactions you have with children every day are prime opportunities for vocabulary reinforcement. My oldest son recently discovered professional sports in a big way. A conversation about the impact of his favorite basketball player’s recent injury was the perfect opening for, “Gosh, that must be so discouraging not to be able to help your team!” My younger sons love to serve up unique concoctions in their pretend restaurant. I think Fancy Nancy would agree that their lemon-orange-mushroom pizza is simply stupendous. Repeating new words in meaningful contexts makes them more memorable for children. It invites them to try using them, too.

Play word games. Finally, in addition to being useful for filling wait time, word games are excellent for flexing children’s vocabularies. A family favorite of ours is “The Question Game,” a relaxed version of “Twenty Questions.” One person picks something in a designated category, like a sport, superhero, or animal, and the others take turns asking questions to deduce it. Crafty grown-ups can work in previously learned or new vocabulary words, such as “Does the bird you’re thinking of swoop down to get its food or does it hover over a plant to eat?” Nothing motivates kids to hone in on using just the right words to request the information they need like some competitive spirit!

Incorporating a few vocabulary-focused habits into your family dynamic is good for kids and satisfying for you. Not to mention, you’ll save a bundle on SAT prep courses down the road.