Recently, my friend Tonia shared an impressive conversation she had with her three year old daughter Naya:
Naya: Mommy, what are you doing?
Tonia: Collapsing moving boxes.
Naya: Collapsing? Ah yes, like an umbrella at the beach.
Tonia: Yes, exactly. Just like an umbrella at the beach. Do you want to help?
Naya: No, I’m busy. You have to make an appointment.
I thought about the smart connection Naya made between collapsing moving boxes and collapsing an umbrella. Her parents clearly used “collapsing” while packing up at the beach, and Naya retained the word. I wondered if Naya helped to collapse the umbrella, if Tonia explained what collapsing meant, how many times Naya had to hear the word before she could make this connection and if Tonia used the word in other situations. Sun safety is important to all moms, and I’m sure collapsing the umbrella is part of Tonia and Naya’s beach pack-up routine.
Unsurprisingly, Naya didn’t want to help collapse the boxes because she was so busy. Tonia is a mom who doesn’t hesitate to use her everyday strong vocabulary with Naya. On their way to preschool each morning, they talk about their plans for the day. Naya shares who she will play with and activities she looks forward to. Tonia fills Naya in on her plans and appointments. It makes sense Naya is swamped with possibly taking her own baby doll to a doctor’s appointment, “grocery shopping” or playing with Play-doh, so Tonia needs to make an appointment with Naya if she requires help collapsing boxes.
How does a child acquire sophisticated vocabulary?
Young children should learn new words every day through reading books with an adult, during conversation, daily routines and trips to museums. Tonia enjoys making up her own stories and incorporating vocabulary Naya has recently heard for reinforcement, as well as new vocabulary. Experiences such as travel and sailing have also allowed for Naya’s vocabulary to be enriched. Tonia automatically combines synonyms and definitions when using a new word, but lately she finds Naya is inquiring what words mean on her own.
I noticed when Tonia and Naya both speak, they never use vague words. They precisely label items and explain themselves clearly. One of Tonia’s many mantras is: Why should I say “hungry” when I can expose Naya to “ravenous”? Why say “hot” when I can say “scorching”?
When Naya was younger, Tonia always allowed Naya to speak for herself. When Naya speaks, Tonia actively shows Naya she is listening. Sometimes Naya needs more time to think about what she wants to say. Tonia provides this time for Naya to pull her thoughts together, and mature vocabulary is sometimes elicited as the conversation progresses.
Vocabulary skills are linked to decoding words when a child learns to read, reading comprehension and general school performance. A child who has a larger vocabulary can be more aware of sound patterns within words. For example, when decoding the unfamiliar word “favorite,” the ending may be decoded to sound like “kite”. If “favorite” is in a child’s vocabulary, it is more likely to be read correctly.
As parents, read with your child, explain words, and point out meanings within the pictures if possible. Try to purposely use target vocabulary words in conversation multiple times, combining the word with synonyms and definitions as necessary. Use target vocabulary words in relation to your child’s experiences. If you make an effort to improve your child’s vocabulary, you may end up having a conversation with your three year old like this:
Naya: I’m a rockstar.
Tonia: Oh, yeah? What do rock stars do?
Naya: Make music. And I have a hat. (Puts hat in front of her on the floor.)
Tonia: What is that for?
Naya: So you can give me money.
Tonia: Do you want me to buy your hat?
Naya: No. I want you to put money in my hat.
Naya: Because I did a good job and you liked my music.
Tonia: What if I don’t have change?
Naya: That’s okay mommy, you can give me something valuable.
Tonia: What do you mean?
Naya: Something valuable, like jewelry.
Tonia: Why do you think jewelry is valuable?
Naya: Because it glitters, like ornaments. (Pause) And maybe it’s fragile, too.
Tonia: What else is fragile?
Naya: People’s hearts.
Stephanie Sigal, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a speech therapist working with children on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side of Manhattan. She would be happy to speak with you about concerns you have for your child’s articulation and language development, and kindergarten readiness. You can reach Stephanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.