Why work on vocabulary? Part I

Linda Foskey, CPSP

Consider this -

Children who are exposed to a vocabulary-rich environment in childhood begin school having heard approximately 45 million words whereas a child from a vocabulary-limited home environment will have heard only 13 million words. (Hart& Risley, 2003).

And this -

When a beginning reader comes to the word dig in a book and she begins to figure out the sounds represented by the letters d, i, g, make up a very familiar word that she has heard and said many times. It is harder for a beginning reader to figure out words that are not already part of their speaking (oral) vocabulary.

Vocabulary is important!

  • Vocabulary growth is directly related to school achievement
  • The size of a child’s vocabulary in kindergarten predicts their ability to learn to read
  • A good range of vocabulary helps children to think and learn about the world
  • Expanding a child’s knowledge of words provides unlimited access to new information
  • The adults in a child’s life play a significant role in helping them learn new words.

Through everyday conversations and interactions, caregivers use unfamiliar words and talk about what words mean, which helps expand a child’s vocabulary. In fact, the number of words a child is exposed to by caregivers relates directly to the size of the child’s vocabulary.

Paris (2005) identified vocabulary as one of the unconstrained skills, meaning that it is a skill that we continue to develop over our life span. While people can certainly improve their vocabularies as adults, it is much easier to strengthen language skills when young.

Vocabulary develops from birth along with other communication skills

From a study by Meredith Rowe (2012).

Between 12 and 24 months, the amount of language used by caregivers is important.

  • Parents and other caregivers should speak to the child all the time and provide consistent word models.
  • Children need to hear words modelled many times before they will begin to use the words, so the more frequently they hear words, the better the likelihood that they will add that word to their vocabulary.
  • At 2 ½ years children’s vocabulary is influenced by the quantity (number) of words a parent used one year earlier. This means that children aged 12-24 months benefit from hearing lots of talk and many examples of words.

Between 2-3 years, it is recommended that caregivers begin to use a great variety of words to expand vocabulary skills.

  • By this age most children have learned a lot of common vocabulary, and are ready to learn more difficult words, such as “purchase” instead of “buy”, or “weary” instead of “tired”.
    Between 3- 4 years vocabulary begins to be more related to quality.
  • Have conversations about things that happened in the past (e.g. an outing they went on, something funny that happened at preschool, etc.) or something that is planned for the near future (e.g. a trip to see Grandma) is helpful.
  • Being able to understand and talk about things beyond the ‘here and now’ is very important.
  • Children need to develop language that allows them to talk about things they can’t see or touch in their physical surroundings. We call this language for thinking and learning.
  • Begin using more sophisticated language and provide examples so the child can learn to understand new words with descriptions using words they already know.
  • And providing explanations about things (e.g. answering children’s “why” questions) is also helpful at this age.

Meredith Rowe found that at 4 ½ years, children’s vocabulary was influenced by parents’ use of narratives (talking about things that happened in the past or in the future) and explanations one year earlier.

How to help a child learn new words

From Rowe’s study, we know that:

  • young children (1-2 years) benefit from exposure to lots of words (quantity)
  • toddlers (2-3 years) benefit from hearing a variety of sophisticated words
  • preschool children (3-4 years) benefit from conversations about past and future events as well as explanations
  • Try to stay one step ahead of children in their development. Modelling words that are slightly beyond the child’s level will help develop a stronger vocabulary.

Want to learn more about this topic? Read Why Work on Vocabulary Part 2 and Part 3.


Hart B, & Risley, TR. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap. American Educator, v27 n1 p4-9 Spr 2003

Paris, S. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40 (2), 184-202.

Rowe, M.L A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity and quality of child-directed speech in vocabulary development, Child Dev. 2012 Sep; 83(5): 1762–1774. accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3440540/ 15th June 2021