When my eldest was just a preschooler, we had great fun developing her interest in words with what we called our "magic message board." Each morning she'd wake to find a short message written on this board that lived on the front of our fridge. The message was often a clue to what the day had in store, a countdown to an event, or a love note to let her know how wonderful she was.
Each morning, excitedly, she'd look for the new message. Though she couldn’t yet read, she'd notice letters she was familiar with or ask, "Which word says 'cake'?" (or "bus" or "museum" and so on). It was a wonderful way to engage her with words — whether they were fun, interesting, unusual, or even everyday words.
Why Words Are So Important
Children with a strong vocabulary to draw upon are better able to comprehend what they hear or read. They can learn to communicate their needs, wishes, and ideas. And, they’re likely to find more ease in the overall journey of learning to read and write.
Fortunately, there are many ways parents can help children develop a broad vocabulary. Below are some simple ideas for developing vocabulary across a range of age groups.
For Babies & Toddlers
Provide lots of opportunity to converse with your little one — even before he can answer you with his own words. Be a personal broadcaster, talking about your actions, the places you are visiting, and the things that you can see. Young children benefit from the concrete experience of hearing and seeing words in relation to their actual context.
Like my daughter's example shared above, use a whiteboard or chalkboard to write short messages for your child to discover. Read through the message with your child and don’t be afraid to use less familiar words — the more you can expand her vocabulary over time, the better. For example, see an alternative for the word "chicken" in this sentence: “We’re having your favorite for dinner tonight — poultry!”
For Elementary Students
Create a "Jar of Words" with small pieces of paper, each with an interesting word written upon it. Invite your child to choose a word from the jar at a regular time each week. Ask him if he knows what the word means. If he doesn't, you can tell him or ask him to look the word up in a children’s dictionary. Take turns to create sentences using the word correctly and look for opportunities to use the word in conversation throughout the week.
For Middle School Students
Host a Family Word Competition at the dinner table. Share a word of the day and have each family member share what they think the definition of the word is. (A number of dictionary apps include a word of the day feature, which is a handy way to source words.) Reveal the true meaning of the word, awarding a point to the person who first correctly identified the meaning. Keep a running tally to find your family’s biggest word nerd for the month.
Whichever activity is right for your family, keep vocabulary exercises and games light and fun and your child will be learning and growing her words without even realizing it.
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