Make your children Trump with their vocabulary this year by Catherine Jackson

17th January

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As the little one hands me a toy telephone, she jabbers away in – what seems like – a foreign language. English is her second language so it’s entirely possible that she is competent in her home language and needing a little boost to catch up in English. However, her keyworker knows that this isn’t her first language, as she has checked with mum. This is jargon – entirely normal for a 12-18 month old, less typical of a 3 year old. She’s sociable, understands the idea of communication and has great joint attention, but her vocabulary is yet to develop.

My recommendations to his keyworker? For her to speak less. “But we’ve been told that children have to hear language all the time if they are going to learn it.”

Later, in the same nursery, I join the girl with a group of her peers exploring the water table, that’s filled with lumps of ice. “Look” a child holds up the icecube to his keyworker eyes, “you can see through it.” “oh yeah!” she replied. He gave it to me. “You’re right! I can see right through it! It’s translucent. That means you can nearly see right through it, but not quite.” His keyworker raised her eyebrow at the word “translucent.”

Make your children Trump with their vocabulary this year It seems that one minute I’m advising staff to use less language and the next I’m telling them to use more. I am, but the message is the same: Add vocabulary at their level. So for the 3 year old with no real words yet, she needs to hear single word vocabulary, i.e. one step up from where she is right now. Commenting on what she is looking at will allow her to hear the word in the right context and will allow her to imitate at the level with which she can cope. After all, when she was jabbering away on the phone, that’s what she was doing: copying what she had heard others do.

The other children have got good language but there’s always room for improvement. Why use “see through” when you can use “translucent.” Why use “big” when you can use “massive, huge, gigantic or enormous?” Incidentally, this is one of the reasons we recommend that parents speak to their child in their mother tongue. Children will get the best version of a language when this happens. As soon as a parent speaks to their child in a second, less familiar language, their vocabulary range decreases dramatically. But I digress.

We’ve already established the importance of vocabulary in educational outcomes here so we know that the more vocabulary a child hears the better their chances are in life.1

So here are some tips to ensure that we are boosting children’s vocabulary, no matter where they are in their language development:

  •  Ditch the questions – controversial I know, but if I had followed up the little lad’s comment with a question, it probably would have been something like “and what is it?” when I know and he knows that it’s an icecube. Questions for questions’ sake.
  •  Add vocabulary at their level. So, for the wee girl, labelling “icecube” would have been appropriate, for the boy, letting him hear a corker like “translucent” will completely leave his parents flabbergasted later.
  •  Let them hear the new vocabulary in a number of contexts, on a number of occasions.

If you don’t believe me that vocabulary is important for success later on in life, with this being the week of the presidential inauguration, let me leave it to Donald Trump to demonstrate. And you can add “bigly” to your repertoire of vocabulary related to size. Enjoy!!

If you’re interested in reading more on the subject, I highly recommend this factsheet by ICAN.

Catherine Jackson is both a speech and language therapist for the NHS and the founder of Wise Old Owl Speech Assessment Apps. She is passionate about early intervention and specialises in supporting early years staff to feel confident in their abilities to support children’s communication skills. Be sure to visit Childcare Expo London on Friday 3rd March to attend Catherine’s seminar.

1 Leon Feinstein and Kathryn Duckworth (2006) Development in the early years: its importance for school performance and adult outcomes

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