The seemingly *enormous* task of building *spectacular* vocabularies with our children

By Imogen Dean, Speech & Language Therapist

“Oh Miss, Miss! I saw one of those things today!”

“What thing was that?”

“You know, we saw it at the museum. One of those giant boat thingies.”

“Oh, was it a ship?!”

“Not a ship…it’s underwater!”

“A sunken ship?”

“No…it’s like, it goes really fast underwater, and you can see fish out the side and stuff.”

What could it be??? A ship? A sunken ship? A fast, sunken ship with windows?

The second grader’s frustration was palpable. He knew exactly what he wanted to say; he could see it in his mind’s eye. But the word he needed to use – submarine – was not within his reach.

A limited vocabulary could make social interactions more difficult

Having a limited vocabulary can be frustrating in a number of scenarios. Vocabulary skills contribute to a child’s reading and writing ability, as well as their verbal and written comprehension. Children may find it difficult to explain themselves, or to keep up with conversations or curriculum as the range of words used around them gets exponentially greater.

Comment on your surroundings. Actually, vividly paint a colourful picture of your vibrant surroundings

Now, I’m a chatterbox to begin with, but around children (especially those with a language delay) I make a point of commenting on as much as I can in my surroundings. That’s not just a tree, oh no. That’s “an enormous oak tree with spectacular green leaves which could potentially be over a century old!”

This often leads to a discussion about what it means for something to be ‘enormous’, or ‘spectacular’, or what a ‘century’ is. Or it may turn into a scavenger hunt to find other things around us which could be described as ‘enormous’ or ‘spectacular’. These could be objects in real life or those found during interactive book reading, where we discuss what is happening in the pictures as well as focusing on the text of the book:

There is an enormous giant trying to take back the spectacular golden goose!

By repeating these words in a range of contexts, and to describe different things, the child is able to understand the scope of the word.

Repeat yourself – literally – for your child’s benefit

When taking on the task of introducing new words, repetition is key!

You could think of your child’s semantic memory (which stores word meaning) as a web of fine threads that connect each word to its different associations. For example, dog might be connected to animal, furry, barks etc.

Each time you repeat the word dog and use it in a new context (‘look, this furry black dog also has 4 legs and tiny paws!’), you add new threads to this web. Now, dog is also connected to legs and paws, and you’ve added another thread to the existing connection between dog and furry.

The more threads that connect dog to different associations, the more firmly dog will be rooted in your child’s mind! And when you add another thread to an existing connection like between dog and furry, it’s as though you’re tying multiple threads together to make a stronger rope – the connection becomes stronger.

This process is particularly important when learning more abstract words such as century (other examples are approach or predict), which a child may not pick up on their own.

So while you are probably sick of hearing how enormously important it is to help our children gain some spectacular new vocabulary, your child is soaking it up like a sponge. And with your support, your children will grow to have spectacular word knowledge and enormous vocabularies too.

Questions about your child’s speech development?

Ask me a question in the comments below, or send me a private message on my Facebook Page, and I’ll try my best to get back to you with an answer!

About the author

Imogen Dean is a Speech-language Pathologist at IntegrateHK. She has experience working with children and teenagers in both school and clinic settings, addressing issues related to speech production, language development, social skills, fluency, feeding, and voice. Imogen is also certified in the Hanen Centre’s ‘It Takes Two to Talk’ program, for parents of late talking children.

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