Having a good vocabulary is an essential skill for many areas in life. Some of these, such as reading, writing and academic success, will be relatively obvious, but this is not necessarily true for all of them. For example, having a good vocabulary is one of the keys to learning how to identify and express emotions, to explain to others what you need from them in any given situation, to ask for help, or to get your point across to others. Vocabulary is how we communicate with others, how we express our opinions and how we explore the emotions both of ourselves and of others. It’s how we tell the world what we like and what we don’t; what makes us happy and what makes us sad; what makes us feel good and what makes us feel bad. It’s how we apologise for our mistakes, accept responsibility for our actions and praise what we find good. In fact, I would go as far as to say that developing a good vocabulary will not only increase your child’s likelihood of succeeding in life, but will also increase their chances of growing into happy and healthy adults, or at least making sure that they are able to express themselves when they feel unhappy, and so do something about it.
In this context, one of the most worrying statistics which I have come across since starting How To Raise A Happy Genius is this: The children of professionals will hear thirty million more words by the age of three than children from the most disadvantaged background. This is a deficit which, once it exists, few children will ever be able to overcome, and they’ll not only trail behind their better off peers for the rest of their lives, but the gap between them will most likely continue to expand, leaving them ever further behind. This, then, is one of the crucial reasons why it is really important for children to starting building their vocabulary skills from as early an age as possible.
So how do you help your child develop a good vocabulary? Well, you can play vocabulary games with them, or read books which are specifically designed to help with vocabulary development, but there’s something even simpler you can do that is also amongst the best ways of developing their vocabulary : you can talk to them. Children, especially young ones, are like sponges, absorbing everything in the world around them, and words are not different. They’ll soak up every word they hear, trying their best to infer meaning from context and responses. This means that the more words a child hears growing up, the better their adult vocabulary will be, and the more likely they will be to grow into a happy and successful adult.
However, it’s not enough to just hear words on television programmes or in conversations between adults, instead it’s best if the words your child hears are said directly to them in a one-to-one situation, and as part of a two-way conversation. This is because it allows them to both stop and ask if they hear an unfamiliar word, and to play around with their ever-growing vocabulary as if it were a new toy. Most kids love playing with words, even from a very young age. They love it when they discover familiar words in unexpected situations, or unexpected words in familiar ones. And as any parent who has said something they shouldn’t when their child is within ear shot knows all too well, they love repeating almost any new word that they hear.
At this point, you may be feeling that this is all a little redundant, and that this is something that every parent intuitively knows, but you’d be surprised at how frequently parents don’t quite get this right. All to often, parents will talk at their child rather than to them, meaning they don’t provide the opportunity for the child to stop and aks what a new word means. In addition, they’ll often dumb-down their language when speaking to their child in the belief that this will help get their meaning across. While this may well be true, it robs the child of the opportunity to expand their vocabulary into new and exciting areas. Similarly, many adults will only talk to their child about what they think are child-friendly subjects, such as how they did at school or what games they like to play, which is all fine and good, but children also benefit from being talked to about more complex things, like emotions and philosophy and science and relationships. All these areas in life come with their own set of words, and children need to learn the specific vocabularies that go with them if they are to be able to understand them.
Take, for example, finances. If a child doesn’t learn words like budgets and compound interest, bank charges and interest rates, credit and debt, then they’re not going to be able to learn how to deal with them. Similarly, if they don’t learn to associate specific words with how they feel, or how others make them feel, then they won’t learn how to identify and express their emotions, or how to learn how to change the things in their life that make them feel unhappy.
So, how should you go about talking to your child? Well, I would always suggest starting from a very young age, even before your child can talk, and make at least ten or fifteen minutes a day when it’s just you and them with you talking directly to them. This is dedicated vocabulary time, and should be in addition to the general running commentary on household life that young children should be exposed to as they grow and develop, but it can be fitted in wherever there is space. This means it can be during bath time, on the run to nursery, while getting them dressed or changing a nappy, and can fill what might otherwise be dead spaces in your day. In terms of what to talk about, it can be as simple as talking to them about what you are doing, the colours of their toys, what items in your house are called and how they work, or it can be more complicated, like explaining what you did at your work that day. Exactly when you fit this in isn’t important, but rather it’s that you get into the habit of talking to your child.
In the beginning it’s just about exposing your child to as many different words and sounds as possible, but as your child grows up, your conversations will change from one-way to two-way, and you can move into discussing things with them. The crucial thing here is that you make sure that the conversation is kept age-appropriate but without dumbing down the words that you use. In fact, the richer the word content the better, especially it is full of nice, juicy descriptive words and complicated sounds.
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules about how to talk to your child to help them improve their vocabulary and you may find it tricky at first, but the more you practice, the more you’ll learn how to get it just right for your particular child. This having been said, there are some basic rules of thumb that you may find useful to follow when talking with your child to allow them to get the most out of it.
- Set aside dedicated periods of time each day to talk to your child with the aim of developing their vocabulary. During this time, you need to make sure that they are your entire focus. This means that you need to put down your phone, step away from the tablet, turn off the television and remove whatever other distraction there might be. It doesn’t mean that you can’t talk to your child while doing something else, just that it can’t be something that is taking focus away from them.
- As much as possible, let your child be in charge of the direction that the conversation takes. They’ll learn a lot more if they have the freedom to go off on a tangent rather than following some strict structure that you have decided for them. Yes, you may find this frustrating and difficult to follow, but it’ll do wonders for your child to be allowed to do this, at least for a few minutes each day.
- Try to use as many different descriptive words as possible, and don’t avoid using words just because you think your child is too young to understand them. If they are to enhance their vocabulary, children need to hear words that push them beyond the limits of their current knowledge. Of course, you don’t want to be throwing in so many large and complicated words that they get lost or lose interest, but never shy away from using a more complicated word here and there if it fits into the context.
- You need to make sure that you child always feels free to interrupt you whenever they hear a word they don’t understand so that they can to ask what it means. There’s no point in exposing them to loads of new words if you don’t provide them with the opportunity to stop and ask what they mean.
- Try to keep the conversation calm and free of strong emotions. If your words are mixed with strong emotions, you child may not only struggle to understand them, but may also concentrate on your emotional state rather than what you are saying. This can be difficult at times, especially if your child wishes to talk about emotive issues (such as why Granny thinks you’re a bad parent!), but it’s important to try to remain as calm as possible. Just remember that your child is asking a question in order to learn from it, not to try to anger or upset you.
- Finally, and probably most importantly, try to make your conversations as fun as possible. A child that laughs while learning will remember a lot more than one that doesn’t. This means that your conversations shouldn’t be hour-long lectures on the wonders of the parliamentary system of government (although, if that’s what your child really wants to talk about, there’s nothing wrong with that!), but rather should be filled with jokes and puns and amusing word-play. They should be about daft topics and silly subjects and whatever else catches their fancy. After all, the important thing here is that they hear the words and learn what they mean, not that the conversation necessarily makes sense.
So, hopefully this post has explained a little bit about why talking to your child is so important in terms of developing their vocabulary, and given you some hints about how to go about doing this. However, just to round things off, I’d like to end by pointing out that there another very important reason to get into the habit of talking to your child from as young an age as possible about as wide a range of subjects as possible. This is that it normalises a two-way flow of information between you and them, and this will encourage them to talk to you about any issues that are troubling them. This is particularly important as children move towards their teenage years, and if you haven’t got into the habit of talking to your child about how they feel by that age, you can’t really expect them to suddenly start then, even though it’s the time in their life when they are likely to need it most.
Links To Additional Useful Information On This Subject
- The Early Catastrophe: The Thirty Million Word Gap By Age Three: This is the original report from American Educator in 2003 which first identified the gap in word-exposure between young children from better off and more disadvantaged families. You can download a PDF of this report by clicking here.
- The Thirty Million Words Initiative: This is an organisation dedicated to encouraging parents to harness the power of their words to help build their children’s brains and so shape their futures. You can find their website here.
- Improving Early Child Development With Words: This is an interesting TedxAtlanta talk by Dr Brenda Fitzgerald on the subject of the importance of talking to your child as part of their development.
About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.