When I say the word ‘vocabulary’ what’s the first thing you think of? For me, it’s studying for vocabulary tests as an elementary school student. But did you know that we are developing our vocabulary practically from the moment we are born?

According to Oxford Languages, the term vocabulary refers to ‘a body of words used in a particular language’. So basically, any word that you know is part of your vocabulary. In honor of Dictionary Day this week, I thought we would discuss the development of your child’s vocabulary.

When the Learning Begins

Well, if we think about it, infants are developing their vocabulary from the moment they are born. What may begin to them as sounds of vowels and consonants eventually turns into words that they become familiar with. When you ask an 8-month-old where mommy is, they not only know who mommy is but they understand that that word is specifically associated with that woman.

Whether you realize it or not, your infant has been developing their vocabulary daily simply by listening to the words that you say. When it’s time to feed you most likely mention that to your infant. “Its time for a bottle”. Your child is now beginning to associate the word bottle with feeding.  When you tell them it’s time for a bath and then undress them and put them in the tub, they are learning what bath means.

Learning the Sounds

At first, the development of vocabulary is really an indirect process. It doesn’t happen the way it does later in life when we sit down to make a specific association with one word and it’s meaning. Rather, we learn about words through context and sounds.

Some words are easier to learn early in life because not only are they essential (mama, dada, go) but they are also simple words that use the sounds a child is learning how to speak. What initially begins as imitation, develops into vocabulary.

Learning the Words

Once a child reaches the age of 1 they most likely have a couple of words in their vocabulary. Words are learned in various steps…first the child is exposed to the word, then the child begins to understand what the words means before they eventually begin to use the word themselves.

They may not say the correct term – for example, they may say ‘wawa’ for ‘water’ – but there is an understanding among the child and their caregiver as to what the sounds mean. The child’s needs are met and as time continues, the sounds become more refined and more closely resemble the actual word. By the time a child is 2 they should have at least 100-200 words in their vocabulary.

Language & Vocabulary

Now here comes the interesting part of language that I’d like to touch on for a moment. The concept of language is split into 2 parts: receptive language (what the child understands) and expressive language (what the child can say). Just because a child is not saying 100 words does not mean that those words are not in their vocabulary.

Take my son, T (24 months) for example. At the age of 20 months he understood absolutely everything that was said to him but he was not ‘speaking’ more than 5 words. Now I put ‘speaking’ in quotation marks because although he made sounds, nothing really sounded like the actual word he was trying to say. But he understood everything. I could ask him to go to his bedroom and get his book and bring it back to me and he would do it.

His vocabulary in terms of the words he knew and understood was immense. But he wasn’t producing the sounds to make the words that he needed to be saying…so we put him in speech therapy. No biggie. (and he’s doing great).

Continuing to Grow

There’s a funny thing about vocabulary, it doesn’t stop growing simply because a child starts talking. Rather vocabulary is something that will continue to expand throughout your life. Heck, I’ll be the first to admit that I am still learning the meaning of words today and I am no spring chicken.

So, what are some ways that we can encourage the continued growth of our child’s vocabulary?

  1. Read with your child

What starts as reading to your child will eventually morph into reading with your child. Remember that vocabulary development starts indirectly, which implies that your child is beginning to understand the meanings of words simply by hearing them and by hearing them in context. Young children can even learn to associate words with images through picture books. Say the word as you point to the picture in the book. It can help make the connection for your child.

  1. Follow your child’s lead

Watch your child play. Do they enjoy playing in the kitchen? That can be the perfect opportunity to introduce them to words that you use in the kitchen such as mix, stir, open, close. Do they like playing with cars? Looks like a great time to use words such as push, fast, and slow.

  1. Help them understand new words in simple ways

Children need to learn the child definition of a word. Simple, to the point. A child knows what it means to go fast. Suddenly someone uses the word quick. Redirect that back to going fast. If repeated enough and used in context, a child will begin to make the association between fast and quick. Simple explanation, simple use, connection made.

  1. Show them what words mean

We’ve discussed it before…not all kids learn the same way. One child may hear a word used in context and immediately know what it means. Another child may need a visual cue to help them figure out what the word means. When teaching a child what angry looks like, make the face, draw the face, show them pictures of the face. There are plenty of ways to show what a word means that may help them understand.

  1. Talk to your kids

When they’re infants you can narrate what you’re doing so they can begin to learn some new words. As they get older and can speak, have conversations with them. You may be surprised at what they say. The other day P (4 years old) was jumping on a trampoline with her dad when suddenly she said “Daddy don’t do that. Don’t go too high. When you do that it makes my throat hurt and I feel scared.” I was so pleased with the conversation. She used new words in appropriate ways. It was great.

Lifelong Learning

I know that we think of vocabulary simply as the words we know, but one of the reasons it is so important in early childhood is because it has a great impact on learning how to read and write. A child’s vocabulary is strongly correlated to their reading comprehension, intelligence and general abilities. Children learn new words through reading and then begin to incorporate them into their written and spoken language.

So, go ahead and start helping your child develop their vocabulary today. Talk to them, read with them, sing with them, play with them! It may not seem important now or feel like you are doing anything meaningful. But just know, it will all make an impact in their vocabulary development as they continue to grow. 😊