Vocabulary: The more you grow, the more you know.

By Annick LeBlanc, Speech-Language Pathologist,

First Words Preschool Speech and Language Program

A child's first word is a milestone many people look forward to. It's exciting to get a glimpse of what children are thinking by hearing them use a word! Vocabulary development starts before your child says their first word.  Before speaking, babies communicate in many ways, by crying, smiling, making sounds, pointing or gesturing.  

Babies have also been listening and watching to help them learn to talk. Before saying a word, children need to understand what the word means.  Children learn what words mean by hearing them in their day-to-day activities. They have to hear a word many times before they can understand it.  For example, at first, your child may not have reacted when they heard you say: bath time. Now, they either get excited or run away when hearing the word 'bath'!  Later, they will use the word on their own.

Your child should say their first word by their first birthday. By 12 months, children should have a vocabulary of 3 or more words. At 18 months, they should say at least 20 words. A child's vocabulary explodes around the age of 2, and they should use 100 words or more. A 3 year old should say at least 800 words. By 4 ½ years of age, children use 1500 words or more.  Keep in mind that children understand many more words than they can say.  

Even as adults, our vocabulary keeps growing!  Each year, new words are added to dictionaries.  For example, the words "staycation", "decluttering" and "photobomb" were added to dictionaries in 2015. 

Children's first word will often be a noun representing a person or object that is familiar to them. Their first words are usually not clear.  As their vocabulary develops, they will start to use different kinds of words. It is important for your child to learn a variety of words.  This helps them express themselves in different situations and combine words together. There are many different categories of words you can help your child learn.  See the list below.

Words that are often found in young children's vocabulary include:

Body parts - eye, ear, mouth, nose, hand, tummy, head

Animal names - dog, cat, mouse, cow, horse, pig, monkey, crocodile, elephant, fish, turtle

Toys - ball, block, bubbles, book, doll

Food and Drink - milk, water, banana, cereal, cheese, toast, peas, carrots, chicken, egg

People - Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt, Child's own name, sister, brother, boy, girl

Clothing - bib, diaper, hat, pants, pajamas, shirt, socks, coat, shoe

Household Items - blanket, bowl, telephone, brush, cup, keys, soap, spoon

Outside Things and Places to Go - house, outside, store, rain, snow, sun, tree, flower, rock, swing, slide, park

Vehicles - car, bus, bicycle, airplane, firetruck, motorcycle, stroller, train

Action Words - drink, eat, fall, finish, drive, close, open, cry, love, stop, tickle

Descriptive Words - all gone, big, broken, cold, fast, tired

Pronouns - me, my, mine, you

Location Words - in, on, under, on, off, up, down

When talking with your child, highlight key words.  This will help your child associate the word to an action, object, person or place.  For example, you could tell your child:  "It's time to go outside.  We're going to the park.  Let's get your shoes on.  Put your foot in.  Don't forget your hat.   Let's take the stroller and walk.  Sit down.  Will you swing or slide?  We're going to have fun!"

During the preschool years, children will hear millions of words. The number of words your child says when they start kindergarten is valuable.  The bigger your child's vocabulary, the more likely they are to succeed in school and learn to read.

Studies have shown that the number and type of words a child hears will impact their vocabulary size.  The development of a child's vocabulary will depend on their age and skills.   You can use different strategies to help your child's vocabulary grow.

- Between 12 months to 24 months of age, the quantity of words a child hears is important. Expose them to lots of words, to help build their vocabulary.  Take turns in the conversation.  Give your child the chance to take part.  You don't want to do all the talking and have them tune you out.

- Toddlers (24-36 months of age), have many words in their vocabulary. They can start to focus on learning words heard less often. When speaking to them, don't shy away from using words that are less common or more complex.

- Tell your 4 year old stories. Talk about past events, like what happened at the park. Talk about things that will happen soon, like going to visit the museum. Explain to them how things work and what words mean.     Your stories and explanations will help your child understand words and learn new concepts.  They will also learn the importance of telling a story from start to finish. Not to mention organizing their ideas so their stories can be understood.

You play a key role in your child's vocabulary development. Not only is how often you speak to your child important, but what you say matters too. Talk to your child often. Use a variety of words. Explain the meaning of words. Tell your child stories.

Help your child learn new words each day. Use all kinds of words to talk about what you are doing and what your child sees, hears, feels, tastes or smells. Talk about where you are going and how you will get there. You are helping them learn about their world and how to interact with the people around them.

Before you know it, your child will say a word that makes you wonder: "Where did they learn that?" Talking, reading, singing and reciting nursery rhymes together help your child learn. All your efforts will pay off as you see your child's vocabulary grow!

First Words Preschool Speech and Language Program of Ottawa provides free services to families living in Ottawa. Screenings, assessment and therapy are services offered by our program. Children can access our services from birth through junior kindergarten.

For more informaton, visit the First Words website.

Do you have more questions?

Contact Us