Encouraging Precise Vocabulary in Infants and Toddlers

The above video speaks to the importance of modeling precise vocabulary use to an infant or toddler. Since Sam is only 42-months, one would not expect him to use exactly correct, or precise, vocabulary use of objects around him. He has much to learn! However, it is important to build vocabulary daily (as we know from Hart & Risley’s 1995 landmark study of the importance of vocabulary growth for school readiness). Since play activities are a great opportunity to reveal unknown or inconsistently known vocabulary to an infant or toddler, I seize the moment.

When Sam uses the word “this” in response to my question regarding what he will use to find bugs, I do not let him “get away with” his vague response. That is, although he answers my question “correctly” by saying “This” and holding up his binoculars, I encourage him to use the precise vocabulary word for the object (i.e., binoculars). By asking him to name the object precisely, I encourage brain development in several ways. First, I am able to find out whether or not he actually knows the word for the object. If he hadn’t known the name for “binoculars,” it would have given me the opportunity to teach it to him. But, since he knows it, my expectation gives him the chance to practice producing (i.e., saying) a multi-syllabic (i.e., long) word, which he doesn’t do often since there aren’t that many words with more than 3 syllables that he says on a daily basis. Asking him to use the multi-syllabic word gives his “talking” muscles great practice for sequencing sounds in order in a word with many syllables. Expecting him to use the word “binoculars” also gives him the opportunity to use the vocabulary word in conversation.

When a second opportunity arises to teach Sam the word for “vest,” I am all over him once again to use the precise word. Since what he is wearing is not a “shirt,” as he refers to it, I help him find the word he needs to describe the article of clothing. I already knew that Sam knew the word for “vest,” since he really likes the cotton knit vests he has that he wears to church with dress pants (although Sam sometimes dons one of his vests for no reason!). His play with his bug catcher, binoculars and “backyard safari” vest gives me the opportunity to expand his thinking about what a “vest” is. It gives me the chance to add to his definition of “vest” as something one wears with shorts or dress pants to something that has a zipper and pockets for holding tools/equipment while adventuring in nature.

When a child uses a word in conversation or during play, versus just naming it in a book or on a toy room shelf in response to the question “What’s this?,” a child is much closer to “owning” the word. Owning a vocabulary word means that a child has the vocabulary word solidly stored in his verbal memory and, therefore, that it will be much easier to read the word in print or understand the use of it in a formal lesson once he is in a school setting. If a child’s understanding of a word is “shaky,” or incomplete (i.e., he understands that binoculars go on your eyes, but he doesn’t know that they magnify what you see far away), he may be frustrated by or fail at reading the word, or he may have difficulty understanding a teacher’s or peer’s use of the word during a school lesson. Clearly, if he doesn’t know the word at all, either because it has never been part of his experience or it was never taught and encouraged in play or the conversational setting, than he will most certainly not be able to read it or understand it during a school lesson.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of far too many infants and toddlers who grow up to become unprepared school children. They did not receive the language input they needed to build their verbal memory to the point of “owning” words in order to be successful readers and learners. The grown-ups around them either didn’t take the time to build vocabulary or didn’t know how to build vocabulary, so a vocabulary understanding and use simply does not grow. Too often, it can happen when a parent follows the bland advice of “encourage your child to learn through play,” “read to your child daily,” or “talk to your child as much as you can” without truly understanding what any of these bits of advice mean or look like. Like a plant that does not receive enough air, water or sunlight ends up unhealthy or stunted in reaching its potential, so, too, will a child who does not build his vocabulary skills from birth to 3 years old end up “unhealthy” in his school readiness and stunted in meeting his full potential as a human being.


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