Speak UP! Why We Should Use Big Words With Little Kids

 Have you ever overheard someone talking to an infant, and they use that high, sing-songy voice?  That’s called “parentese” and it’s been shown in research to support language development in infants.

Now, have you ever heard someone use that same voice and watered-down words with a preschooler?  That’s called patronizing, and it shows a gross underestimation of a child’s capacity for vocabulary building.

A child between the ages of 2 and 6 has the ability to learn between 6 and 10 words per day(1).  That’s up to 70 words a week!  But there’s no way a child can reach those kinds of numbers if she isn’t exposed to language in meaningful, interactive ways.

Quality Conversations

 The discrepancy of the use of language in homes across social class is an interesting thing to consider.  On average, a child in a welfare class family hears 616 words in an average hour, while a child in a professional class family hears 2,153 words (2)!  While there are many differences in typical outcomes for child development across social classes, it is interesting to note that these differences are not necessarily a direct result of income, but of the experiences the children have.

If we truly respect the child’s amazing ability to rapidly build vocabulary, we will take advantage of the opportunity to engage them in quality conversations and expose them to new words.  Here are a few ways to do just that:

Don’t shy away from the big words.  It is very common for adults to simplify their language when talking to young children.  Instead of referring to the veterinarian, we talk about the “animal doctor”.  While a sentence full of new words would be a bit overwhelming for anyone, throwing in a new word now and then is a great opportunity to build vocabulary!  If we are referring to the veterinarian, we should use that word, offering “animal doctor” as an explanation, and then referring to “veterinarian” a few more times in the conversation.  If you’re explaining what something is, you might as well use the right word the first time.  Children may not always pick up on those big words, but they certainly won’t if they don’t ever hear them.  There isn’t much opportunity for growth if we’re always using words they already know.  So go ahead, use words like “identical” instead of “same” and “metamorphosis” instead of “change”.  You’ll be surprised at what your children will pick up on when you give them the chance!

Talk with them, not at them.  Include children in the conversation by asking them open-ended questions.  Ask them to tell you about the best part of their day.  Have them tell you all about the structure they’re building out of legos.  Ask them about what they think will happen next in the story you’re reading.  Study after study bears out the fact that children learn more when they are engaged in conversation with adults and competent peers as opposed to passively hearing information.

READ.  First graders who have been read to regularly have an average working vocabulary of 40,000 words while those who are rarely read to have a working vocabulary of just 10,ooo words.  The difference comes from the number of words they have heard in a positive, engaging experience.  Strive for that 20 minutes a day of reading aloud and talk with your children about what you’re reading.  Use extension activities to give you the opportunity to refer back to those new words they were exposed to in the reading.

Talk About Success

When children have a larger vocabulary, they have a distinct advantage in the learning process in general.  Think about it.  Would you prefer to take a science class in a foreign language or the one you are familiar with?  Children with a small vocabulary are essentially hearing a foreign language at school.  The brain power needed to understand new concepts is diverted to simply try to understand the words being spoken.  The more words a child has at his disposal, the more he is going to understand and the more he is going to verbally participate in the learning process.

In many studies vocabulary is a valuable predictor of academic success, but what predicts vocabulary?  Conversations with adults.  Children scoring higher on language measures have consistently had more quality conversations with their parents and caregivers. 

So start today, and speak up with your little ones!

For more information:

1 Conversations in Childcare - California Childcare Health Program

2 Vocabulary – Concepts and Research – University of Oregon

Top photo by glendali.

Center photo by bjearwicke.

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30 Comments

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30 Responses to Speak UP! Why We Should Use Big Words With Little Kids

  1. Great post! I used to teach first grade and was almost surprised when I sometimes would hear someone speaking to their child as if he or she was an infant.
    Wanted you to also know that I have an award for you on my blog:
    http://sunriselearninglab.blogspot.com/2010/07/cool-awards-for-some-cool-bloggers.html
    Love your blog! :) Colleen

  2. Yes! Thank you!

    I also don’t like the I can read books for this reason as well. I feel like they are dumbing down our language and robbing children of the beauty of expression.

    It’s almost embarrassing how well my daughter communicates at 27 months. I can hardly go a day without someone telling me she is so advanced. All I say is we read every day.

    We read at least 20 min before nap and 20 min before bed. I do not limit her to reading books in her “age range.” I read books that she’s interested in. She can tell you the books by title and answer questions about them. I’ve been reading to her since she was one and even I am astounded by the results.

    Great Post! I’ve got to pass this on!

    • Janna, I’m so glad you shared this post. I love it! Annalyn is really advanced in her vocabulary, and I really think it’s because I talk to her like a person not a baby – and I always have. And of course we read a lot, too. (Maybe not 20 minutes before nap and bed. Although that would be a good goal for us to aim for!)

      One of the funniest times we noticed this was when my mom asked her what she’d like for lunch (when she was about 2, I think), and she said, “A quesadilla.” My mom just cracked up that this little baby girl could say quesadilla!

      (Of course, I said, “What do you expect? We REALLY like Mexican food!”) :)

  3. Excellent post, and I’m glad that you emphasized “positive, engaging experience” – so important to be aware of whether the child is able to attend as you are speaking. Some children, especially those with autism, do require adults to adjust the amount of talking (not by “watering down” the vocabulary) but simply by making sure the interaction is somewhat balanced. The adult talks a little, then gives extra wait time encouraging the child to process and respond what was said to him/her.

    • notjustcute

      Excellent point, Tara! If we’re talking with children instead of at them, we can gauge where that threshold is.

  4. Tammy in Georgia

    I really liked your article about using big words with little kids. I told everyone when my son was born that they were to talk to him like an adult. He was born 8 weeks early and the doctors said he would slow and behind the other kids. My response was, “Watch me!” I read to him nightly, played the piano to him, played Mozart to go to sleep by. I instructed him to stop me and ask what a word meant if he didn’t know it. It gave me the opportunity to explain what the word meant as well as help him to build his vocabulary. Even at age 9, he still loves for me to read books above his reading level to him and he absorbs even more vocabulary words and educational concepts. Even as a small child, he was able to have conversations with adults that consisted of full sentenced rather than 2 to 3 word sentences. My son is living proof that this concept is that works very efficiently to the benefit of the child. As for the premature birth and the doctor’s prediction. This type of training along with other healthy measures caused him to advance in spurts and catch up and exceed his expected percentile levels. Don’t ever give up, but embrace this concept wholeheartedly and give you child a chance to get ahead educationally and emotionally.

    • notjustcute

      What a wonderful advocate you have been for your son! It is true, we can’t ever give up on these little ones. I had some serious health problems as a newborn and my parents were told I’d likely be frail. My parents never told me about that prediction until I was an adult. I was a tomboy, an athlete, but never frail. I ran a marathon a few years back and thought I should send the neonatal center a thank you note and let them know these lungs are doing fine!

  5. Amy Johnson

    I am a pre-k teacher. I have always used a very colorful vocabulary with my family because I love words. My four year old has a huge vocabulary because of just what your article says. Do you know of a “test” of sorts that would allow me to see what her vocabulary is currently? We are just curious of what her vocabulary level is.

    • notjustcute

      The first resource I can think of is the Portage Guide which has annecdotal checklists for monitoring appropriate developmental growth. There is a language section within that. Though it doesn’t focus exclusively on vocabulary, it gives a good gauge of whether or not a child’s language skills are developing adequately. Most evaluations I know of are more focused on screening for delays, not advances. I guess it’s the action-focus. If there is a delay, intervention is necessary. If there is an advance, just keep doing what you’re doing!

      It is so fun when these little ones have so much verbal capital at their disposal, isn’t it? When they can so clearly communicate, you get this amazing peek into the mind of a four year-old and see things the way they do!

  6. Joy

    And the best thing about using big words when you talk to your kids is that hearing them use those same big words sounds so adorable. :)

    • notjustcute

      It is so great to hear those words come out of those little mouths! Just this morning my four year-old used the words “nebula” (he heard it at the planetarium yesterday and named one of his “guys” that today), and “paleontologist” (he said they never die because they stay in their labs when it’s dangerous). It makes me smile!

  7. Pam Spann

    I love the Fancy Nancy books and the introduction of fancy words. Kids love them too.

  8. What a great post! I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Last year we started keeping a little girl when she was 9 weeks old. We immediately started signing with her. Both her parents are teachers and read to their kids as well as are very active with them. When she had her 18 month check-up, the doctor didn’t believe the mom that Izzy knew all the words she did and actually understood them. She is constantly on the move and wanting books read to her, asking in her own way what things are, and how to sign them if she doesn’t know how to say them.

    Our youngest son was unable to speak until he was past 3 yrs. because of apraxia and issues with his heart surgery, but he could sign up a storm! He could spell before he could talk, and by the time he was Kindergarten age, he was reading 5th grade level books.

    • notjustcute

      Signing is a great way to tap into those language centers and give young children an early way of communicating! Use spoken words along with your signs to really build strong connections early! It’s amazing stuff!

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  12. Michelle

    Good post. Kids are sponges! My little guy was signing, “milk” at 6months. He was using sentences by 10months. He’d say “I did it!” Yesterday, I told him that it was time to return a toy to friend that had been on loan. I asked him why he no longer played with it. He told me, “Because it is too dangerous! I spin round and round and bump my head and leg! Tell her I don’t want to play with it because it is too dangerous! She should put it away!”

  13. Michelle

    I forgot to say, he is only 27 months and he used “dangerous” in a sentence.

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  17. Malooq

    Hi all,

    I’m inclined to agree with the consensus. However I find that this has the adverse effect the majority of the time if you implement big words when conversing with peers. People generally perceive you as if you are trying to act as a highly analytical person. In some cases this is true, while in other cases this is not. I wish people didn’t have the tendency to have that mentality, as people don’t intend for an expansive range of vocabulary to be viewed in that particular way.

    –Malooq Tariq

  18. laura

    Thanks so much for this post! I always throw around large vocabulary words, and my four year old has been tossing them back since she could barely speak. Lately everyone has been getting on my case about talking to her like she is an adult. They keep saying that I think she is smarter than she is, but the way I see it is; how do you expect her to get smarter if you don’t challenge her? What four year old do you know would give their grandma a hug and say it was because they were looking ‘awfully lugubrious’?

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  20. Totally agree with you. I think it may also have social development benefits, too. My parents hardly ever talked to us, and it would talking “at” instead of “with” when they did. They talked to my younger sister the least because times were particularly stressful when she was a toddler. As a result, I believe, she has always struggled with communication and is the least well-adjusted out of all the siblings. It hasn’t done much good for developing her self-esteem. She is a wonderful person. If only she could see it, herself. I wish I knew how to help her, even though you can’t wind back the clock.

    Sorry for the sad stuff. I hope this further helps to get parents heed your message.

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