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How to help your child build a strong vocabulary

Want to help your child learn new words? Here's what you can do.
Young student and mom practice writing the alphabet with colored markers.

To succeed in school and beyond, children need to build a robust vocabulary. Kids learn a lot from the adults in their lives and there are many ways you can help your child learn new words. We reached out to University of Michigan Education Professor Nell Duke for some tips you can use at home to expand your child’s vocabulary.

“Goldilocks principle”

Try not to overdo it. Professor Nell Duke recommends applying the “Goldilocks Principle” when trying to teach your child new words: not too many words at one time and not too few. A rule of thumb is to choose five unfamiliar new words for your child to learn each week. See how often everyone in the family can use those words in everyday conversation.

Multiple exposure

Typically, a child needs to hear a new word 4 to 12 times before it is added to his vocabulary. When you introduce your child to a new word, try to keep a mental note of it and work to use it again in your conversations with your child. It is also important to use the word in a variety of different contexts, wherever it applies. Don’t be afraid to throw in a word that you had focused on previously as well. Repeated exposure is one of the best ways to master new vocabulary words.

Not black or white

Many people see learning new vocabulary as a very black or white issue; either you know the word or you don’t. However, expanding one’s vocabulary really exists on a sliding scale. There are words that you have heard before but you don’t actually know the definition. There are words that you understand when other people say them but you would never use yourself in daily conversation. Then there are words that you regularly use in the course of your daily life. Kids go through this as well as they develop their vocabulary. Try not to restrict yourself to only using words that your child knows, and don’t stress if your child doesn’t use the same word you do to refer to an object or item. For example, instead of calling a helmet a “helmet,” your child may call it a “hat.” After a while, though, she will begin to understand the subtle difference between the two and start referring to it as a “helmet.”

Make words concrete

As you are teaching your child new words, it is important to help visualize them. For nouns, show your child a picture of it by searching online, or showing a picture in a book or magazine. If it is an adjective, find things that can be described using the word. For example, if you come across “scratchy,” point out the scratchiness of sand paper or a man’s chin. With verbs, try acting out the word with your child. Children love moving around as you explore the words “prance” or “prowl.”

See it, say it, write it

In order for your child to actually learn a new vocabulary word, he needs to be able to read it, say it, and write it. If your child comes across a word in a book and asks you how to pronounce it, encourage him to repeat the word out loud after you say it. Similarly, if your child hears a new word in the course of conversation that is unfamiliar, spell the word out for him and have him write it down on a piece of paper so that he can see the word.

Read daily

Books are the number one way to expose kids to a richer vocabulary. As often as possible, read books with your child. When she comes to a word that she doesn’t know, give your child a quick kid-friendly definition and continue reading. It’s important not to have a big pause about the fact that she didn’t know the word. When you finish reading the story, go back to the word again and ask her if she remembers how to say it.

Ditch the dictionary

Despite popular belief, dictionaries aren’t that great at helping kids with vocab since some definitions include words that may be unfamiliar to your child. Duke recommends taking the time to figure out the definition with your child by using context clues, or the other words around it. Short on time? Give your child a kid-friendly version of the same word instead of having them look it up in the dictionary.

Show how you learn new words

When you come across a word that you don’t know, point it out to your child. Describe to him how you were able to determine its meaning by using context clues. By explaining this process out loud, you will help show your child what he can do when he comes across an unfamiliar word. Highlight the fact that you still learn new words as well.

New words are everywhere

Help your child build her vocabulary by taking her to new places and exposing her to different ideas. Visit your local zoo or the nearest museum and have your child describe the various animals and exhibits that she sees. Take your child along with you as you run off to the bank, the grocery store, or the post office, and see what new words you can discover.

Words with multiple meanings

Kids are often challenged by words that have multiple meanings. English is full of these types of words, such as “days” and “daze.” It is important for parents to be aware that kids will need help in this area. In fact, you might think that a child understands a joke that relies on word play because of their laughter, but actually most children aren’t able to understand these types of riddles until at least the third grade. To help your child understand the different uses for the same word, ask him to explain the word’s meaning. For example, if he uses the word “bat,” ask if he meant the dark creature that flies at night or the wooden stick used in baseball.