A Guide to Building Vocabulary in Early Childhood

Written by Tina Sanchez, MA, CCC_SLP

What should I model to my young child when trying to support their vocabulary development?  

Considering all the information out there on the web and on social media, as well as all the toys and activities marketed in stores down the toy aisle, where does one begin? Trying to navigate where to start when trying to be a good language model for the little one in your life can be such a challenge, and we as trained therapists who specialize in communication development want to help!  

Quantity vs. Quality: Which is more important? 

First, it’s helpful for us to think about why vocabulary building is important in the first place. A child’s vocabulary allows them access to communicate with others about the world around them. What should a parent prioritize: amount of vocabulary words or vocabulary type? The greater lexicon a child has, the more access they have to share information. Vocabulary quality, or type, is just as important when supporting vocabulary development. As an exercise, consider the following scenario: two toddlers who each have 20 words in their vocabulary. Toddler A has the following words in their expressive vocabulary: banana, cereal, pudding, goldfish, cookie, apple, teddy, ball, shoes, puppy, one, two, three, circle, square, triangle, star, A, B, and C. Toddler B has the following words in theirs: cookie, banana, apple, ball, shoes, mine, help, stop, go, more, in, on, eat, want, you, me, push, gone, here, and up.  

Now consider what kind of combinations each toddler can make. Toddler A has great vocabulary knowledge in order to label many of the items in his environment, with some ability to describe shape and quantity. Toddler A can make word combinations such as “two shoes” and “star cookie,” however he is limited as the remainder of his vocabulary is noun dominant. Toddler B on the other hand can produce combinations such as: me push, you go, want ball, mine shoes, help me, go more, cookie gone, shoes off, me up, and eat banana. Because Toddler B had an expressive vocabulary that included nouns, verbs, pronouns and spatial concepts in comparison to Toddler A whose expressive vocabulary consisted of nouns, Toddler B could express more semantic relations than Toddler A. Therefore, we believe it’s important to consider both quantity and quality when modeling and teaching language to young children.  

Vocabulary Building Activity Ideas  

Teaching Nouns – Nouns can easily be taught by naming objects, people and things in your child’s environment when you talk to them. Highlight and emphasize nouns when your child is engaged and attentive, such as when your child is playing with familiar toys or when making good eye contact with a family member. Make sure to model nouns when your child is observing you during your daily routines as well, as this supports both their receptive and expressive language skills.  

Teaching Verbs – Verbs can be modeled and emphasized during games, familiar routines and book activities. Try combining your own model of the action when teaching verbs so that your child has many examples in order to build good understanding of what the verb is. Also consider pairing the labeled verb with a gesture or even the ASL sign for the same verb. This addition will provide the child with more information, which will further support the child’s vocabulary development.  

Teaching Spatial Concepts – Teaching spatial concepts such as in, on, under, up and down can easily be taught within daily routines and by using household items. One simple activity is to take a laundry basket and rolled up socks and use them like a game of basketball. Depending on your child’s gross motor ability, you can have your child try to toss the socks “in” the basket or you can help your child make it in while you emphasize the spatial concept e.g. “you made it IN!” or “socks went IN!” “Up” and “down” can be emphasized during meal times when picking your child up to put them in their high chair and later when taking them out and putting them down.  

Supporting your child’s vocabulary is hard work, but we at TLC Kids Therapy want you to remember that it should be fun! By using the activities and routines you already have with your child, you are sure to have endless opportunities to model and teach a variety of words types!   

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TLC Kids Therapy

We provide a safe, enriching and child friendly environment for therapy. Our mission is to be a blessing to all of the children and families that comes through our doors.
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