Improve Your Preschooler's Vocabulary

There are plenty of ways parents can improve their preschooler’s vocabulary. University of Iowa psychology professor Bob McMurray, Ph.D. says parents usually stop emphasizing language as their kids leave toddlerhood.

Since a preschooler’s vocabulary is a predictor of school preparedness, there are ways parents can help children improve their  vocabulary.

McMurray’s research concludes a vocabulary explosion is dependent upon a child learning a mix of words, both easy and not easy and all at once. Interestingly, vocabulary explosions specifically require “more difficult words than easy words.”  The professor and other language professionals make the following suggestions to elevate your child’s verbal skills.

Mealtime Magic (Hold the Thesaurus)

 preschoolvocabA child’s vocabulary can be enhanced by our talk at the dinner table. Use moments at mealtimes to introduce new words, especially challenging ones since you’ll have their attention in a pleasant setting. What to discuss? In a mealtime study, Dr. Diane Beals and her colleagues of the University of Tulsa discovered that 3- and 4-year-olds who were exposed to uncommon words such as “boxer,” “wriggling,” or “tackle,” scored higher on later standardized tests at age 5. Beals says forget about serving up a thesaurus at the table and instead discuss “your day or something cool you saw at the store.” Bringing in new words helps them form connections between words and real-life events.

Lovely Language in Lit

Reading your child a story creates magic for both of you and is beneficial to their growing vocabulary when you ask lots of questions during the story, checking for understanding. If your preschooler does not recognize a word when you quiz her, ask her to study the illustration for clues. Classics like Where the Wild Things Are contain new words your child may not otherwise hear and accommodate such as “rumpus” and “gnashed.” Throughout the book, continue to interact with your child, asking open-ended questions such as “What do you suppose will happen next?” and “Why do you suppose Max felt so angry?” Such interactions involving novel vocabulary will improve the quality of their language skills, setting them up for increased success in school.

Guessing for Success

Consider a little restraint to challenge your child. Dr. McMurray suggests instead of automatically doling out definitions for your preschooler when they stumped on a word’s meaning, you should give clues and allow her to figure it out on her own. If, for example, the word in question is “equestrian,” give her hints such as saddle, mane or stable. It can also be helpful to “tell them what it isn’t” So you could say “not cows, but…”

Stage Your Own ‘Show & Tell’

Who says “show and tell” is just for school? You can easily use this format to describe and discuss an object to expand their vocabulary outside of school. You might demonstrate the hand chopper you use to dice vegetables, explaining how the appliance functions and saves you time. You could show your child the checks in your checkbook, discussing how the small sheets of paper may be used for payments. The important thing is to have your child’s attention and provide something to touch and to see to anchor vocabulary within their memories.

Make Believe & Mime

Engaging your child in pretend play will introduce her to a wider variety of vocabulary words. If you are playing restaurant, for example, there are all sorts of unfamiliar words which can be integrated into the session—including menu, hostess, variety, or beverage. If she wants to land on the moon, vocabulary words such as lunar, satellite, or gravity might be incorporated.

Outside of pretend play, parents can help their children better remember the meanings of words by acting them out. Even simply explaining that shrugging your shoulders means “I don’t know” is helpful.

Is all the acting and drama really necessary? Consider a new University of Chicago study which is the first to connect gesture, vocabulary and school preparedness. Conducted by Susan Goldin-Meadow, the results indicate children who use more gestures at 14 months have larger vocabularies at 54 months and are better prepared for school. Goldin-Meadow indicates “Child gesturing could play an indirect role in word learning by eliciting timely speech from parents” since a child pointing to an object like a cup might elicit a response from the parent such as “Yes, that’s a cup!”

Try all five of these strategies to boost your child’s verbal repertoire today and help her become a better reader tomorrow.

by Michele Ranard, M.Ed.

Michele Ranard is passionate about partnering with parents to help kids succeed. She is a freelance writer with a background in professional counseling and academic tutoring. She has a blog at cheekychicmama.com.


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