Helping Parents Build Their Youngsters’ Vocabulary

This article was originally posted on Leader Live by Stephanie Sigal.

Recently, my friend Tonia shared an impressive conversation she had with her 3-year-old daughter.

Naya: Mommy, what are you doing?

Tonia: Collapsing moving boxes.

Naya: Collapsing? Ah yes, like an umbrella at the beach.

Tonia: Yes, exactly. Just like an umbrella at the beach. Do you want to help?

Naya: No, I’m busy. You have to make an appointment.

I thought about the connection Naya made between collapsing moving boxes and an umbrella. Her parents clearly used “collapsing” while packing up at the beach and Naya retained the word. I wondered if Naya helped to collapse the umbrella, if Tonia explained what collapsing meant, how many times Naya had to hear the word before she could make this connection, and if Tonia used the word in other situations.

Unsurprisingly, Naya didn’t want to help collapse the boxes because she was so busy. On the way to preschool each morning, Tonia and Naya talk about their upcoming day. Naya chats about playmates she can’t wait to see and activities she wants to do. Tonia fills in Naya on her plans and appointments. It makes sense if Naya gets swamped with taking her baby doll to the doctor, grocery shopping or making playdough creations, so Tonia needs to make an appointment if she wants Naya’s help collapsing boxes.

How can parents help enrich their child’s vocabulary?

Tonia’s style with her young daughter provides an excellent example of ways we might encourage our clients’ parents to help build their child’s vocabulary. Parents can teach children new words every day by reading to them, engaging in conversation, explaining daily routines, and taking family excursions to museums.

Mother with daughters

Tonia enjoys making up her own stories and incorporating new vocabulary practice for reinforcement. Experiences such as travel and sailing also enrich Naya’s vocabulary. Tonia automatically combines synonyms and definitions when using a new word, but lately Naya inquires what words mean on her own.

When Tonia and her daughter speak, they never use vague words. They precisely label items and explain themselves clearly. One of Tonia’s many mantras: Why should I say “hungry” when I can expose Naya to “ravenous?” Why say “hot” when I can say “scorching?”

When Naya was younger, Tonia allowed her to speak for herself. When Naya speaks, Tonia actively shows she’s listening. When Naya needs more time to think about what she wants to say, Tonia remains silent and waits patiently for her daughter to pull her thoughts together. Tonia occasionally coaxes Naya into using more mature vocabulary as the conversation progresses.

Vocabulary skills help children with decoding words when they learn to read, as well as with general reading comprehension and school performance. A child with a larger vocabulary becomes more aware of sound patterns within words. For example, when reading the unfamiliar word “favorite,” a child might decode the ending to sound like “kite.” However, if she already knows the word “favorite,” she’ll likely read it correctly.

Encourage parents to read with their child, explain unfamiliar words and point out word meanings within the pictures. Teach them how to purposely use target vocabulary words repeatedly in conversations and suggest they combine the word with synonyms and definitions as necessary. Explain that they should use target vocabulary words in relation to their child’s experiences. If parents make an effort to improve their 3-year-old’s vocabulary, they may end up having a conversation like this:

Vocabulary - mother reading to her daughter.

Naya: I’m a rock star.

Tonia: Oh, yeah? What do rock stars do?

Naya: Make music. And I have a hat. (Puts hat in front of her on the floor.)

Tonia: What is that for?

Naya: So you can give me money.

Tonia: Do you want me to buy your hat?

Naya: No. I want you to put money in my hat.

Tonia: Why?

Naya: Because I did a good job and you liked my music.

Tonia: What if I don’t have change?

Naya: That’s okay Mommy, you can give me something valuable.

Tonia: What do you mean?

Naya: Something valuable, like jewelry.

Tonia: Why do you think jewelry is valuable?

Naya: Because it glitters, like ornaments. (Pause) And maybe it’s fragile, too.

Tonia: What else is fragile?

Naya: People’s hearts.

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Stephanie is a speech therapist licensed to practice in New York since 1995 and holds a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. She has consulted for the Early Intervention Program of Stepping Stone Day School. Stephanie is a certified member of ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) and she is PROMPT and Floortime trained. Stephanie is trained in The Windward School’s Preventing Academic Failure (PAF), a multisensory reading, spelling and handwriting program, as well as Windward’s Expository Writing Program. She was selected to study oral motor therapy under the supervision of Sara Rosenfeld-Johnson, an innovative leader in oral motor treatment at Talktools™. Stephanie has been an adjunct professor at major universities, has supervised speech therapy graduate students, is a five-time recipient of ASHA’s ACE Award for her commitment to continuing education, and has been quoted on the topic of kindergarten admissions in publications such as “The Atlantic” to websites such as “The Ivy Coach.”


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