How to Build Vocabulary in Toddlers

Have a child just learning how to talk? Here are 10 tips on how to build vocabulary in younger kids.

Every parent wants to give her toddler a head start in speaking and language skills – and experts suggest it’s easier than most people think.

“You don’t have to spend a bundle on DVDs or flashcards,” says speech-language pathologist Amy Nelson. “Language acquisition is birthed through face-to-face interactions, and by engaging your child in everyday activities and experiences.”

Here are 10 simple suggestions on how to build your toddler’s vocabulary.

1. Associate through reading.

“Create an interactive experience by making books come alive for your child,” says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., educator and three-time author. “When you are reading together, pick up on your child’s interest; then, relate the content of the book to his life. If there’s a picture of a dog, say, ‘That’s like Grandma’s dog. Where else have you seen a dog?’ So he links what he sees in the book to his own experiences.”

2. Incorporate core vocabulary.

“Choose books that have bright colors, simple pictures and short phrases or sentences that use core vocabulary – nouns such as animals, toys and food,” says Nelson. “Give your child an opportunity to label and repeat words. Also use what speech-language pathologists call ‘expansion.’ If your child says, ‘cat,’ you say, ‘big cat,’ or ‘sleeping cat’ by adding an adjective or verb to increase his length of utterance.”

3. Encourage repetition.

“Children often have a favorite book they want to hear time and again, and that’s OK,” says Golinkoff. “Repeated readings build toddler’s vocabulary and story structure understanding.”

4. Visit venues.

Take trips to venues that have programs specifically designed for children, Nelson notes. “Children’s museums have a variety of exhibits, so toddlers can learn words about opposites such as ‘wet’ and ‘dry,’ ‘big’ and ‘little,’ ‘up’ and ‘down.’ If you go to other sites such as natural history or art museums, scale it down to your child’s level.” Focus on basic vocabulary and point out the animals, flowers, shapes and colors you see.

5. Out and about.

“Everyday outings provide opportunities to talk about what you see at the supermarket, pharmacy, park and doctor’s office,” Golinkoff says. “When you take walks, point out different things and bring back leaves, rocks and sticks, so you and your child can count, sort and explore more. When he goes to the pediatrician for a well checkup, trace around his body on the table paper; then, take it home and help him label his body parts.”

6. Sing songs.

Interactive songs and rhymes that incorporate movement with melodic or rhythmic patterns are captivating for children and encourage vocabulary expansion. Songs like “Head and Shoulders” help them learn body part identification, and others such as “Eentsy Weentsy Spider” teach directional concepts.

7. Tinker with toys.

“Blocks and simple puzzles offer geometric and spatial language with terms like ‘above,’ ‘below’ and ‘next to,'” says Golinkoff. “Dress up clothes increase language, too. Give your child old clothes and play along with his fantasy.”

Adds Nelson, “Your toddler may not be ready for board games, but you can use the game pieces as manipulatives. Put checkers into different piles according to colors and count them. Or adapt games such as Barnyard Bingo to work on matching, naming and counting.”

8. Interactive games.

Use interactive games, such as “This Little Piggy” and “Humpty Dumpty” to build vocabulary. Stop and leave off a word, so your child can fill it in. When you’re driving in the car, play “I Spy” with colors to improve color recognition.

9. Narrate routines.

Encouraging talk during your daily routines is a great way to expand your child’s vocabulary. For instance, when you’re dressing your child, say, “I’m putting on your pants … your shirt … your shoes.” Soon your child will start to repeat those words.

10. Review and retell.

“Before going to bed, rehash the day’s activities to cement vocabulary your child used during the day,” Golinkoff suggests. “Or encourage him to recount his experiences to another adult with your assistance.”

This post was originally published in 2010 and is updated regularly. 


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