Increasing Young Children’s Vocabulary

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The research shows that there is a high correlation between the depth of a child’s vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension (Ouellette, 2006).  The more words a child understands, the more they are able to comprehend what they are reading.  So, it makes sense that if we want our children to before proficient readers, we need to build their vocabulary.

It has long been established that young children learn language and build vocabulary from the speech they hear.  However, the language and vocabulary that we use in every day conversation tends to be quite limited.  If you don’t live in a country where it snows, you are unlikely to use this word or associated terms in every day conversation.  Books provide the link that will help increase children’s vocabulary and knowledge of a wide range of concepts (see for example, Peifer & Perez, 2011; Raikes et al., 2009; Sne’chal & LeFevre, 2002).

With this in mind:

  • On a regular basis choose books that contain concepts and vocabulary that is new to your child.  Informational texts are often a good source for familiarising children with new ideas.  However, fiction texts can also provide a platform for learning new information and the vocabulary surrounding these ideas.
  • Before reading these texts, ‘activate’ your child’s prior knowledge by discussing what s/he already might know about the topic or related topics.  For example, a child may not know anything about cheetahs, but they are likely to have some knowledge about cats.
  • Look at the illustrations and diagrams and ask your child to make predictions about the text.  Make links between this information and your child’s current knowledge.
  • Through these discussion you are cueing your child into the vocabulary that will be used in the text.

When you come across a new word or concept in books you are reading, take the time to implement the following strategies to increase the likelihood that your child will remember the word and its meaning:

  • Explain the new word using words your child already understand and support this explanation with examples, using the word in a sentence, and/or showing your child a relevant picture or diagram.  For example: Fiction means not true or not real.
  • If possible link the word to your child’s own experiences or previously read books.  For example, you could say: “Remember that book we read about Horton the Elephant?  That was fiction.  It wasn’t true.  The book we read about Elephants in Africa was not fiction.  It told us true facts about elephants living in Africa.”
  • Encourage your child to think of his/her own example.  In this example, can s/he name some fiction and non-fiction books previously read.
  • Take every opportunity to use the word(s) in your everyday conversation. “I think I’ll buy your cousin a fiction book for her birthday.”
  • For older children, you may want to write these words on flashcards that are kept on the fridge with a magnet.  This will be a good prompt for you to include this vocabulary in your conversations. As new words are learned, previously learned words should be removed.  Alternatively, your child could start a ‘word journal’ which s/he could then refer to when writing stories.

Don’t turn your child off books and reading by making every book into a lesson or a test.  However, you could generate discussion and consequently consolidate learning by:

  • Asking your child to tell another adult (or child) about the book.
  • Sharing a fact that you found interesting or that you didn’t know.
  • Locating the child’s favourite part.
  • Having a race to re-find the ‘new’ words that were discussed.

The Cracking the ABC Code Reading for Comprehension books focus on vocabulary development and include free access to an online learning tool associated with the vocabulary.


Ouellette, G.  (2006). What’s meaning got to do with it: The role of vocabulary in word reading and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (3), 554-566.

Peifer, K., & Perez, L. (2011). Effectiveness of a coordinated community effort to promote early literacy behaviors. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 15(6), 765-771.

Raikes, H., Pan, B., Luze, G., Tamis-LeMonde, C., Brooks-Gunn, J., Constantine, J., Tarullo, L., & Rodriguez, E.  (2007).  Mother-child book reading in low income families:  Correlates and outcomes in the first three years of life.  Child Development, 77(4), 924-953.

Sne’chal, M., & LeFevre, J.  (2002).  Parental involvement in the development of children’s reading skill:  A five-year longitudinal study.  Child Development. 73(2), 445-460.

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