Early Literacy: Speak Up!

How to help children build a rich vocabulary day by day

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K, 1–2

Language and vocabulary represent the very foundation of learning to read and write. Children who do not develop strong oral language skills and vocabulary in these early years will find it difficult to keep pace with their peers.

Language is not just talk. Prominent psychologists, such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, recognized the importance of the relationship between language and thought. In other words, children use words as a way to understand important concepts. In fact, language actually drives cognitive development, with words standing for increasingly sophisticated ideas. A recent study indicated that, from age 3 onward, children need to build a vocabulary store of at least 2,500 words per year. The same study stresses that they should encounter and explore at least two new words each day.

Children use the natural medium of language for thinking. Those who acquire a substantial vocabulary are often able to think more deeply, express themselves more clearly, and actually learn new things more quickly. This knowledge builds more knowledge, and more word power, so that by the time children get to school they will have two important skills that are critical to later reading success: knowledge about their world and the language to communicate with others.

Keep Them Talking!

There are many ways you can help to bolster children's vocabulary development. Most language is learned as children become engaged with the people around them. The richer and more abundant the language children hear daily, the more well-developed their own language will be. One study suggested that, by the age of 4, children in a language-rich environment have listened to over 45 million words.

Listening to conversation, though, is not enough. Children need to be active participants in conversations. You'll need to help them learn language and vocabulary in structured activities as well, like shared reading and guided play. Children will need time, resources, and many learning opportunities to practice their new language skills in ways that are meaningful to them.

Use Oral Storytelling

Telling stories is among the more effective instructional approaches for developing children's oral language skills and vocabulary. It requires active listening-children must listen carefully to your words and the changes in your voice to make predictions. They must rely on their memories and understanding of narrative as you "spin the web" of the tale. After telling your story, let children take turns using their expressive vocabulary, narrative skills, and sense of audience to tell a story for the rest of the group to enjoy.

Pull Words from Picture Books

Shared reading, of course, is a time-honored routine in many classrooms. Lap books (bigger than picture books but smaller than big books) or large-format books allow you to share the warm intimacy of reading together as a group. Before reading the story, go over some of the words that might be new for children. For example, you might briefly explain, before reading Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger, that the ukulele in the book is a kind of guitar. After enjoying the story, return to these words and help children explore other words that might be related. "Can anyone think of other musical instruments besides a ukulele?" Be sure to read the book several times so that children will remember the vocabulary.

Include Show and Tell

Show and tell is another terrific strategy for building children's oral language and vocabulary skills. Help guide this familiar activity by modeling how to share an object from home. Demonstrate how to point out its important features in a clear manner to the group. You can encourage children to use the concepts of who, what, when, where, and how to name the item and describe what it is, how it works, what it is used for, and why they like it. You can also model how to comment on and ask questions about the object, helping children develop courteous and responsive listening skills.

Share Songs and Rhymes

Songs, rhymes, and poems are an ever-fresh source of delight for young children. In their playful way, songs can improve children's memory, vocabulary, and creative uses of language. You can capture the joys of songs, rhymes, and poems by writing them down and displaying them on chart paper, along with illustrations, for children to sing, say, "read," and "write" on their own.

Children also need to hear, say, and learn nursery rhymes. Not only do they love the lilt and the lyricism of these jingles, but they also benefit in terms of developing literary language and recognizing the sound structure of words. Children love to recite "Humpty Dumpty" and will forever remember Jack and Jill's bad tumble. Words like fetch and crown, rarely heard in day-to-day speech, enhance the range and uniqueness of children's growing vocabulary. Try to not let a day go by without sharing songs and rhymes in your classroom.

Never underestimate the importance of language and vocabulary. When you plan for and regularly use some of these strategies, you are building literacy for children's lifelong learning.

  • Subjects:
    Literacy, Listening and Speaking, Vocabulary, Communication and Language Development, Songs and Rhymes

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