Why Work on Vocabulary? Part 2

Missed the earlier blog post on this topic? Read Why Work on Vocabulary? Part I here.

Linda Foskey, CPSP

In Part I, I discussed the development of children’s vocabulary in the early years. As children grow, educators, parents and caregivers should begin to use more complex words and talk about things that have happened in the past and in the future. Children need to develop language that allows them to talk about things they can’t see or touch in their physical surroundings.

Getting children ready for school. How does vocabulary help them succeed?

Vocabulary plays an important role in oral language development and early literacy (Hill, 2012). Konza (2016) notes the importance of explicit teaching of vocabulary to support children to become confident in a word’s meaning and use in context so that it will become part of their own vocabulary.

Let’s get into this.

Decontextualised language is language that is removed from the here-and-now. It can be seen in parents’ uses of:

  • explanations
  • narratives (stories that may or may not be true)
  • pretend
  • non-immediate talk during book reading, and
  • formal definitions (Snow, Tabors & Dickinson, 2001).

By exposing children to this type of challenging talk, (that will potentially increase their vocabulary) educators and parents can provide them with practice in the forms of language they need to be successful in school.

Evidence for this

Research has found a link between parent and child use of rare words and decontextualised language and children’s later vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. Katz (2001) found that mothers’ use of pretend utterances during play with three year olds was positively related to children’s vocabulary comprehension and to their ability to provide formal definitions in kindergarten. Beals (2001) found a relationship between the percentage of explanatory parent talk or narrative talk during family mealtimes and children’s vocabulary skills at age five.

We also know that the quantity of parent-child book reading interactions predicts children’s later receptive vocabulary, reading comprehension, and internal motivation to read. Importantly, we also find that parent language that occurs during book reading interactions is more sophisticated than parent language outside book reading interactions in vocabulary diversity and syntactic complexity (sentence length and grammatical structure) (Demir et al 2019).

This all adds up to the importance of sharing information about things that are not here and now for the child. In the year before formal schooling, much of this decontextualised language learning comes from pretend play, interaction with adults (storytelling and retelling) and shared book reading.

What can you do?

Engage in conversations

Talking with children about what they see and experience in their environment and exposing them to new words, starting when they are very young, is essential for building vocabulary.

Engage children in reading

Reading with young children and allowing time to explain new words, link words with illustrations, and answer questions about the story, events or illustrations.

Introduce new vocabulary

Children need to have a rich vocabulary that continually grows through language and reading experiences, in order to be able to use oral language for a variety of purposes.

Look for opportunities to introduce vocabulary in a child’s everyday environment and use new words often. “The people who live near us are called neighbours. The Jones and the Browns are our closest neighbours.”

  • Introducing new vocabulary involves the following main components explicit teaching of appropriate vocabulary words
  • repetition of the same words in varying contexts (speaking/listening, reading, writing)
  • repeat children’s ideas back to them using more advanced language. When the child says, “It’s a soft kitty,” you might say, “Yes, it’s such a furry, fluffy kitty.” This expands their word bank in an organic, unforced way.
  • work with a small group to think and talk about words
  • retelling stories using key vocabulary from the book
  • use props or concrete objects to explain vocabulary
  • explicit discussion of meaning of new words
  • ensure teaching vocabulary is embedded across the curriculum.

Consider which words you select for teaching

  • How useful is it? Will the child hear this word again? Will they find it in other books? Could they use it to describe their own experiences?
  • How does it relate to other words they know? Will it add more dimension to a topic covered?
  • What does the word contribute in the situation or story?

Consider which books you choose

When you select a book to read with your child or group check it through for some ‘interesting words’ to discuss. Remember the Goldilocks Principle – not too easy, not too hard, just right.

And I talk about this in more detail in Part III.


Demir-Lira, ÖE, Applebaum, L.R., Goldin-Meadow, S. and Levine, S.C. Parents’ early book reading to children: Relation to children’s later language and literacy outcomes controlling for other parent language input, Dev Sci, 2019 May;22(3) accessed at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30325107/ 15th June 2021

Uccelli, P. Demir-Lira, O.E., Rowe, M.L. Levine, S. and Goldin-Meadow, S. Children’s early decontextualized talk predicts academic language proficiency in mid-adolescence, Child Dev. 2019 Sep; 90(5): 1650–1663. Accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6785988/ 15th June 2021

Weitzman, E. & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and Beyond: Building Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood Settings. The Hanen Centre: Toronto.