Who can forget their child’s first word. Was it your name? A favorite object? It’s pretty exciting stuff, and it feels natural to celebrate, praise and applaud our toddlers as they acquire new language skills daily. A parent’s enthusiasm, in turn, reinforces a child’s desire to speak additional words. However, psychologist Bob McMurray says parents stop emphasizing language as their kids leave toddlerhood. Since a preschool child’s vocabulary is a critical predictor of school preparedness and reading comprehension, it is important parents do what they can to boost it.
McMurray’s research indicates a vocabulary explosion (or ‘word spurt’) 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.’
Here are several suggestions to boost your child’s verbal skills borrowing from McMurray’s research and experts in the field:
1. Ditch the thesaurus. A child’s vocabulary can be enhanced by talk at the dinner table. Use moments at mealtimes to introduce new words, especially challenging words, since you will likely have their attention in a pleasant setting.
What to discuss? In a mealtime study, Dr. Diane Beals and colleagues at the University of Tulsa discovered that three and four year olds who were exposed to uncommon words such as ‘boxer,’ ‘wriggling’ or ‘tackle’ scored higher on later standardized tests at age five.
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 to form connections between words and real-life events.
2. Storytime magic. 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 them, ask your child to study the illustration for clues. Classics such as Where the Wild Things Are contain new words your child may not otherwise hear and accommodate such as ‘rumpus’ and ‘gnashed.’
Throughout the reading, continue to interact with your child, posing open-ended questions such as, “What do you suppose will happen next?” and, “Why do you suppose Max felt so angry?”
Interactions involving novel vocabulary will improve the quality of their language skills, setting them up for increased success in school.
3. Guessing for success. Consider a little restraint to challenge your child. McMurray suggests instead of automatically doling out definitions for your preschooler when they are stumped on a word’s meaning, you should give clues and allow your child to figure it out on their own. If, for example, the word in question is ‘equestrian,’ give your child 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…”
4. Stage your own ‘show and tell.’ Who says show and tell is for school only? You can easily utilize this format to describe and discuss an object to expand vocabulary outside of school. You might demonstrate the hand chopper you use to dice vegetables, explaining how the appliance functions and saves you time. The important thing is to hold your child’s attention and provide something to touch and to see to anchor vocabulary within memory.
5. Make-believe and mime. Engaging your child in pretend play will introduce them to a wider variety of vocabulary words. If you play ‘restaurant,’ for example, there are all sorts of unfamiliar words which can be integrated into the session including ‘menu,’ ‘hostess,’ ‘variety’ or ‘beverage.’ If your child wants to land on the moon, vocabulary words such as ‘lunar,’ ‘satellite’ or ‘gravity’ might be incorporated.
Outside of pretend play, parents can help 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 recent University of Chicago study which is the first to connect gesture, vocabulary and school preparedness.
Conducted by Susan Goldin-Meadow, 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!”
Incorporate all five of these strategies at home to boost your child’s verbal repertoire today and help them become a better reader tomorrow.
Michele Ranard, M.Ed., is passionate about partnering with parents to help kids succeed. She is a mother, academic tutor/counselor and freelancer with a master’s in counseling.
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