Give Your Preschooler Vocabulary

A two-year-old child watching an episode of the Teletubbies on a television screen.
Repetition is essential to learning.

Kindergartners who begin school without having learned essential words at home will have difficulty learning to read.

Reading is a by-product of talking.

Children learn words by hearing people talk. Children learn to use language by talking. Simply hearing a word is not enough. The child must know what the word means. A child as young as two years can already do amazing things with language.

Little Carys is two years and two months. She talks all the time, but most of the words she says are still incomprehensible to adults. Some, however, are perfectly clear. She amazed her mother the other day when, because her mother didn’t understand the word she was saying, Carys found a synonym that her mother could understand.

This was an extraordinarily sophisticated use of language. It was possible because of the way that the adults in her life talk to Carys.

Baby talk has never played a large part in the way they talk to Carys. When her mother, father, or uncle interact with her, they describe what they are doing.

If they’re helping her dress, they talk about articles of clothing and the act of putting them on. They often give more than one word for an object. For example, hat, cap, chapeau. They don’t hesitate to throw in “big words,” or words from other languages. This is the kind of game that enabled Carys to come up with a synonym.

She learns the names of things (nouns), but she also learns words that describe or connect.

The adults in her life talk about the texture of things and compare one thing to another. This coat is soft. The cat’s fur is soft. They teach the concepts of hotcoldwarmlongshort by combining the words with things that can be felt to be hot, cold, or warm. They use a ruler or some other object to show the difference between long and short.

I knew a neighbor’s child who, at the age of five or six knew the names of a lot of things, but had trouble talking in sentences. She was noun-oriented.

Pre-schoolers need to learn verbs and prepositions as well as nouns. Many children come to school with little understanding of words like in, on, up, into, down, and under. The use of prepositions is a very abstract concept, but children learn them easily in play.

Carys understands many prepositions because she’s had them acted out for her. For up, her daddy swings her up into the air, saying the word up. For down, he swings her back down, saying the word down. All the prepositions can be taught by acting them out with the child’s whole body. For on, put her on a park bench. For under, put her under a table. For with, take her hand and tell her she’s going with you.

In addition to her interaction with adults, Carys has recorded videos that she watches over and over.  Her favorite videos are a Baby Einstein and a Teletubbies. She watches them with her grandmother, who says they’ve watched them too many times to count. Carys never tires of them. At first she watched in silence. Gradually she repeated certain actions or words. Now she speaks many of the words and whole sentences with the characters. She never tires of them because every time she watches, she learns something new, or finds it easier to say a difficult word.

Don’t short-change your preschoolers. Give them words and the meaning of words. They need intellectual food just as much as they need physical nourishment.