Although it’s important to expose your child to new words, it’s equally important to avoid overstimulating a young mind. Introducing too many new words at once can make it difficult for them to retain what they’ve learned or have a meaningful connection with the new word.
The best way to introduce words is by using them in context during play time, which will encourage your preschooler to learn naturally and will help create a deeper bond with the word.
If you want your child to be able to recall a new word in the future, try saying it while they’re interested in something else—this could be while they’re playing with a toy, looking out the window, or observing an animal. Using the word in context will help them remember it later and will give them a better idea of what the word means.
“Children need to have opportunities to hear words several times in meaningful context so they can begin to solidify the association between a word and its meaning and how the word can be used in communicating with others.” Biemeller & Boote, 2006; Hoff, 2003.
You should also try not to overwhelm your child by introducing too many at once—introduce one or two new words and only use one for about a week before adding another. This will help your child learn all of the words without feeling overwhelmed, and will help you and your child connect on a more meaningful level.
In order to maximize the benefits of introducing new words, you’ll want to make sure that your child is paying attention and receptive to learning new information. You can do this by getting him in an environment where he feels comfortable and happy, and then taking advantage of opportunities when he’s naturally engaged. For example, if he/she loves trucks, try playing with him with some toy trucks during one of his playtimes; while you’re doing it, talk about the sizes of the trucks or how they are different from other toys in his room.
You should also try to use language that is interesting or important to your child. If you were just playing with toy trucks, for example, you could ask him if he likes big trucks or small trucks better. Or you could ask him what color truck he would like to drive over a bridge first.
When you bring up the name of a toy to the conversation, don’t make it sound like an ordinary thing. For example, if you say “Legos”, don’t just say it in a regular voice. Instead, act like that word sounds very important and impressive, like “The Force” from Star Wars. Make sure to repeat the name several times to help your child remember it.
Focusing on one word at a time is also very helpful in this situation. If your child says “Legos”, repeat it along with your own emphasis and then ask “What is Legos?” Your child might answer with another question such as “Is that… Legos?” At this point, you can say “Yes! It’s Lego!”
The most effective way to help children learn new words is to provide them with a lot of exposure to those words. The words can be in books you read to your child, on signs around town, or in the conversations you have with them. It’s not enough just to say “elephant” or “black”; the child might have seen an elephant before, and they may even have some black items in their room or clothing, but if you don’t give them opportunities to actually use those words, they won’t be able to connect those concepts with the word itself.
“Playtime” is so much more than just “play time”. It’s a chance to teach your child and maybe even learn a few things yourself. So when you’re building a snowman or baking cookies with your little one, try to think of every opportunity as a chance to introduce new words and keep that little vocabulary growing.
Scratch the surface of the object you’re playing with: is it hard or soft? Is it cold or warm? What color is it? If you can’t figure out the word for something, don’t be afraid to ask your kid what he or she calls it—if they know! You’ll be amazed at the things they come up with on their own.
Children are more likely to learn unfamiliar words if they are embedded in the context of more familiar words, making the unfamiliar word more salient to them(Dickinson, Flushman, & Freiberg, 2009; Hoff & Naigles, 2002; Huttenlocher et al., 1991; Pan et al., 2005).
What else can you do to encourage language development? Try making different sounds for different items as you play together. A truck makes a different sound than a doll, and that’s something your child will pick up on.
And if you want to get really creative, try singing songs that match sounds with objects. The more senses you involve in playtime, the richer the experience (and vocabulary) will be.
Read aloud stories
When we think back to our favorite childhood books, it’s hard not to be nostalgic. Books were once a new and exciting way of learning—and they still are! But as an adult, you might find that reading to your child is repetitive and uninteresting. But there are so many ways to make reading fun for both you and your child!
One great way is to introduce words from the story into playtime activities. When reading any story at home or in school, be mindful of the words that appear in the story. Choose one word from the story and use it as a prompt for a game or activity after you’ve finished reading. For example, if you’re reading about a boy who has a pet dog named Spot, try asking your child, “Can you find Spot?” as you pause after the word appears in the text. This will help your child associate the word with what’s happening in the story and how it makes them feel.
If your child doesn’t understand what’s being asked of them, guide them in finding Spot by pointing out things that could be Spots (for example: a ball or a stuffed animal). Then ask your child what color their Spot is. This will help them learn colors by making associations with things they already know well!
Read a variety of genres.
As I was reading a science fiction book to my daughter the other day, I noticed how many new words she was picking up. She’s normally a very active child, so I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t focus on the words for long periods of time. But by the end of each chapter she had learned a new word or two, and it made me wonder how I could introduce her to even more vocabulary.
I started reading fantasy books to her (a genre I never really read myself) and found that there were even more new words in these. Fantasy books are full of strange concepts that are wonderful starting points for discussions about things we don’t see every day—like unicorns and mermaids, or what it feels like to fly and breathe underwater. And now that we’re reading fairy tales, I’ve seen her vocabulary expand even more as we talk about each of the characters and their motives. Not only does she learn a huge amount of vocabulary from each tale, but she also gets exposed to all different kinds of storytelling, which helps build her imagination and creativity.
Do Word Puzzles
Word puzzles are one of the easiest ways to expose your child to new words and get them interested in what they mean. Kids naturally think in pictures, and word puzzles make it easy for them to see the words you want them to learn. Here are two examples of how we incorporated word puzzles into playtime:
The first time my daughter saw a picture of a giraffe, I asked her if she knew what it was. She looked at it for a few seconds and told me “horse.” I asked her if that’s how she thought of a giraffe, as a horse with a longer neck, and she said yes. I told her that this was a giraffe, and showed her its name on the puzzle. Then I went on to show her several other animals in the same way—showing her the picture first and then asking if she knew what it was before showing her the word puzzle. Note that you don’t necessarily have to use pictures of animals when doing this—you can introduce any type of object or concept through word puzzles.
Then I showed her some farm animals: cow, pig, sheep, horse. I asked “Which one is which?” while pointing at each image. She answered easily enough: “cow,” “horse,” “pig” and sheep.
The power of repetitive word exposure cannot be overstated when it comes to young children learning new vocabulary. The problem is that parents often don’t know what words they should be teaching, so they default to go-to basic words that are easy to say and remember (e.g., “dog,” “cup,” etc.) However, there are other effective strategies to help children learn new vocabulary during playtime that involve using different sensory and motor cues that the child can recall better in a long-term memory context.
So don’t be afraid to introduce new words to your child during playtime, as this is an easy way for them to learn and absorb new vocabulary. Even if you’re not exactly sure what a word means, it’s probably worth using it in a sentence and seeing how your child responds. If she doesn’t seem interested, you can always move on to the next word or activity. Of course, you don’t want this process to be overwhelming; try to introduce just a couple of new words at a time, and you’ll be giving your child a great start!
Administration for Children and Families. (2011). Family and child experiences dataset. Retrieved October 1, 2011, from www.researchconnections.org/childcare/ resources/14345
Beck, I.L., & McKeown, M.G. (2007). Increasing young low income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 107(3), 251–271. doi:10.1086/511706
Biemiller, A. (2001). Teaching vocabulary: Early, direct, and sequential. American Educator, 25(1), 24–28.
Biemiller, A. (2006). Vocabulary development and instruction: A prerequisite for school learning. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of Early Literacy Research(Vol. 2, pp. 41–51). New York: Guilford.
Biemiller, A., & Boote, C. (2006). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 44–62. doi:10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.206
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