The more words your child knows, the easier they will find it to understand ideas and tasks, join in with conversations, write well and express themselves accurately. When children have a very small vocabulary it is hard for them to access schoolwork; we can call this a ‘word gap’. A word gap can be a real problem when children go up to secondary school.
There are many ways you can help your child expand their vocabulary:
1. Talk, talk, talk – and listen
One of the best ways to help your child increase their vocabulary is to talk to them. Talk over dinner, talk when you are out and about, talk as you read a book.
Use interesting words as you talk, such as ‘That dress is exquisite’, ‘I know you’re exhausted, but try and persevere’ and so on. Get your child to respond in full sentences, using some of the words you’ve used.
2. Encourage reading
The more you child reads, the more words they read.
If they are reading fiction, they might be reading interesting descriptions. If they are reading non-fiction, they will be reading key topic words. If your child reads a wide range of different types of books, they will come across a wide range of vocabulary.
Make sure they have access to an age-appropriate dictionary.
3. Read to your child
Read to your child for as long as they will let you. As you read fiction, ask questions around any unusual words: Is Charlie Bucket selfish? Could we say he is unselfish?
As you read non-fiction, discuss any key topic words: Can you remember what a predator is?
4. Talk about homework
As you support your child with their homework, check for understanding of any words you come across. Older children can often be reluctant to share homework tasks, but, if possible, find out what they are doing and, again, check for understanding.
Try using any new vocabulary in other contexts to reinforce meaning.
5. Swallow the dictionary
It’s really helpful if your child has access to a dictionary and a thesaurus at the right level for them, written in language they can understand. A dictionary and thesaurus at home and at school are vital tools in developing and enriching children’s language as well as helping to improve their spelling.
To choose the best dictionary, or thesaurus, for your child, why not use our simple dictionary selector or browse our range of Oxford children’s dictionaries.
6. Practising formal and informal vocabulary
Discuss the different ways we talk in different situations. Give your child opportunities to talk to other adults, for example asking for something in a shop or making a phone call when old enough.
Practising changing the vocabulary they use in different situations builds life skills.
7. Play word games
Play word games to reinforce the meaning of new words, for example:
Adverb or verb charades – Create a set of verbs (crawl, scuttle, rush, bound, skulk) or adverbs (dreamily, anxiously, sulkily). Check that your child understands each one. Take turns to act out one of the cards. Can the other player guess which it is?
Delightful/not delightful – Choose an adjective, such as scrumptious. Take turns to suggest a noun, for example, broccoli, apple pie, the baby. The other person must say if it is scrumptious or not-scrumptious. Repeat with any interesting adjective, such as spacious, delightful, bizarre. Try to make it silly, without deviating too far from the meaning of the word.
Synonym pairs – Create a game of pairs using interesting synonyms such as next to/adjacent, mistake/error, facts/evidence, tidy/organise, suggest/imply, show/indicate, think about/consider. You might like to use words from your child’s homework or reading book.
Dictionary game – Play with four people. Choose a word from the dictionary and write the definition on a slip of paper.
8. Watch Newsround
Watch BBC Newsround or documentaries with your child. Discuss the ideas you’ve learnt about and clarify the meaning of any new vocabulary. Encourage your child to talk about what you have watched, using the new vocabulary.
9. Recasting language
Where possible, take opportunities to subtly correct or improve vocabulary by recasting your child’s comments. For example:
Child: The rabbit goed away!
You: That’s right, the rabbit went away. He went into his hole.
Or to introduce them to a new word:
Child: She’s so tired.
You: Yes! She looks exhausted, doesn’t she? Why do you think she’s exhausted?
Or for older children:
Child: She didn’t want to come. She’s so anti-social.
You: Well, we all feel quite unsociable at times.
Child: That was a bad thing he did.
You: Yes, it was despicable.
10. Tell – and read – jokes
Jokes that play on language are excellent for improving vocabulary – particularly homophones. If you can read or write down the jokes as well – perhaps you could create your own joke book together – then you will be practising spelling too!