Who can forget their child’s first word? It was likely “Dada” or “Mama,” but maybe it was “bawww” (ball) that lit up your face with a smile. It feels natural to celebrate, praise and applaud our toddlers as they acquire new language skills. Such enthusiasm reinforces a child’s motivation to speak additional words.

But according to University of Iowa psychology professor Bob McMurray, Ph.D., parents tend to stop emphasizing language as their kids leave toddlerhood. And yet, a preschool child’s vocabulary is a critical predictor of school preparedness and reading comprehension. As such, parents should do what they can to boost their near school-age child’s development in these crucial areas.

McMurray’s research indicates a vocabulary explosion— or word spurt— depends on a child learning a mix of easy and difficult words all at once. In fact, vocabulary explosions specifically require “more difficult words than easy words.” Along with other language professionals, McMurray makes the following suggestions to boost your child’s verbal skills.

Make Mealtime Magic

A child’s vocabulary can be enhanced by talk at the dinner table. Use moments during mealtimes to introduce new words, especially challenging ones, as you have your child’s attention in a pleasant setting. What’s there to discuss? In a mealtime study, Dr. Diane Beals and her colleagues at the University of Tulsa discovered that 3 and 4 year olds who were exposed to uncommon words such as “boxer,” “wriggling” and “tackle” scored higher on standardized tests at age 5. Beals says forget about serving up a thesaurus at the table and instead discuss your day or something neat that you saw while grocery shopping. Using new words in this way helps kids form connections between words and real-life events.

Embrace Lovely Language From Lit

Reading your child a story brings a tale to life for both of you. It also benefits the growing vocabulary when you ask lots of questions during the story, nurturing your child’s reading comprehension. If your preschooler does not recognize a word when you quiz her, ask her to study the illustration for clues. Classics like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are contain words your child may not otherwise hear and understand, such as “rumpus” and “gnashed.” While you read the book, continue to interact with your child, asking open-ended questions including “What do you suppose will happen next?” and “Why do you think Max felt so angry?” Such interactions coupled with the introduction of new vocabulary words improve the child’s language skills and foster the child’s success in school.

Guess for Success

Exercise a little restraint to challenge your child. Dr. McMurray suggests instead of automatically doling out definitions for your preschooler when stumped on a word’s meaning, give clues and allow the child to figure it out independently. If, for example, the word in question is “equestrian,” give hints such as saddle, mane or stable. It can also be helpful, says McMurray, to reveal what the word does not mean, starting a phrase for your child to finish like “not cows, but…”

Stage Show and Tell

Who says show and tell is just for school? You can easily use this format to expand a child’s vocabulary outside of school. You might demonstrate the hand chopper you use to dice vegetables, explaining how the appliance functions and saves you time in the kitchen. You could show your child the checks in your checkbook, discussing how the small sheets of paper may be used for payments. The important thing is to have your child’s attention and provide something to touch and to see in order to anchor vocabulary deep within the child’s memory.

Play Make Believe and Mime

Engaging your child in pretend play can unleash an array vocabulary words for your child to learn. If you are playing restaurant, integrate in the play session unfamiliar words, such as menu, hostess, beverage and brunch. Perhaps your child wants to land on the moon. Then incorporate words like lunar, satellite and gravity in your playtime.

Outside of pretend play, parents can help their children remember the meanings of words by acting them out. Even simply explaining that shrugging your shoulders means “I don’t know” is helpful.

Is all the acting and drama necessary? Consider a recent University of Chicago study, which is the first to connect gesture, vocabulary and school preparedness. Results of the survey indicate that children who use more gestures at 14 months have larger vocabularies at 54 months and are better prepared for school than other children. In conducting the survey, Susan Goldin-Meadow reflected, “Child gesturing could play an indirect role in word learning by eliciting timely speech from parents.” Consider a scenario with a child gesturing toward an object like a cup. The child pointing to the cup might elicit a response from the parent such as, “Yes, that’s a cup!”
Try all five of the strategies to boost your child’s verbal repertoire today and help the child become a better reader tomorrow.

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