8 Ways to Grow Your Preschooler’s Vocabulary

8 Ways to Grow Your Preschooler’s Vocabulary

New words are the building blocks of language.

You don’t need flash cards, technology or any special equipment to teach new vocabulary. You just need some determination and things that you already have at home.

You may be using some of these techniques already but this article will help add structure to what you are already doing.




1. Read and Re-Read your Child’s Favourite Books

Introduce new topics through picture books. Put aside quiet time and read the book together, looking carefully at the new pictures and explaining any words your child is not familiar with. Model these words for your child by making up new sentences with them.

According to the Again! Project at the University of Sussex, toddlers and pre-schoolers learn more words, and at a faster rate when they re-read the same book (Horst et al 2011).

Another important approach to reading to your child is to ad-lib. Just talk about what is happening in the pictures. You don’t need to read word-for-word. Point to the pictures and name them. Let your child ask questions about the story as you read, and then answer those questions. Ask them questions about the book. This approach will expose your child to a wider range of words and grammar. It is also great if the text is somewhat inappropriate for your child’s age (i.e. too hard or too easy).


2. Teach New Words in a Multi-Sensory Approach and Make it Real

This approach engages as many of the five senses as possible. Connecting words to real meaning or actions rather than an abstract definition will also help the words become a part of the child’s vocabulary. When children physically get in and out of a cardboard box, they will learn the spatial concepts of in and out a lot quicker than if they are simply told about them.

Example:                             Apple

Show the real object if possible to the child so he/she can use all of his/her senses to see, hear, feel, touch, taste or smell the item.

Then discuss the following:

ü  Visual: “What does it look like?” “Round, shiny…”

ü  Parts: “Skin (peel), flesh, pip, core…”

ü  Colour: “Red, green, yellow, white inside, brown pips…”

ü  Taste: “Fresh, sweet, bitter…”

ü  Texture:  “What does it feel like?” “Crisp, hard, smooth”

ü  Smell: “What does it smell like?” “Nice smell?”

ü  Sound: “Does it make a noise?”

Show the object a few minutes later and ask; “What’s this again?”


3. Expand, Extend and Recast

Stay on conversation topics for longer periods of time. When your child initiates a topic and shows interest, stay on that topic and really get into it. Deepen conversations so that he/she has more time to talk about the preferred subject matter or interest. Aim for multiple exchanges between you and your child (Scanlon 2015).

Example Exchange from Paul and Norbury (2012): Child says “bag”

  1. Expand: Add the rest of the words required to make a correct grammatical sentence – “That’s your bag.
  2. Extend: Add more information: “The bag is full of toys.” Or: “The bag is on the table.”

  3. Recast: Recast the child’s remark:
  1. Recast as a question: “Is that your bag on the table?” 
  2. Recast as a negative sentence: “That’s not your bag on the table.”
  3. Recast as a negative question: “Isn’t that your bag on the table?”


4. Get Better at Turn-Taking in Conversation

Turn-taking is related to expanding, extending and recasting (Scanlon 2015). Avoid saying “yeah”, “oh”, or “mmm” to acknowledge your child’s comments. These filler phrases add little to the conversation. Add value to your child’s observations or comments by mindfully responding to what they say. If they says “That’s a big house.” You could say “Yes, it’s enormous”. Or, “Yes, it’s a mansion.” In this way you’re acknowledging your child’s comment, rewarding them for communicating, and adding new information, all at the same time. Repetition of the target word is key.

Example Exchange of Effective Conversational Modelling (Bowen 2011):

Child: I like his punny pace.

Adult: I like his funny face too. It’s a really funny face. A funny face. Do you know what that guy with the funny face is called?


5. Link Things to Your Child’s World

Relate or associate new vocabulary words to words your child already knows (Ruston and Schwanenflugel 2010). If your child knows “big” (and overuses it), try using the words “enormous” or “huge”.


6. Have Your Child Finish Your Sentences

In this technique, the adult provides part of a sentence or phrase and the child completes it with the desired word (Scanlon 2015). If the new vocabulary word is “door”, you could say, “We’ve made our house. We put in a ________.” Wait expectantly for him or her to finish the sentence. If needed, you can give your child the first sound of the desired word.


7. Ask Challenging Questions

If your preschool has already is beyond the emerging language stage, it’s a great time to ask more challenging questions (Ruston and Schwanenflugel 2010). Try the following:

  • Predicting:“What do you think is going to happen next?”
  • Analysis:“Why do you think X felt that way?”
  • Summarizing:“Can you tell me what happened in the story?”


8. Categorizing

Categorizing is an essential skill for many young children. Teaching children to categorize things expands not only their vocabulary, but also their ability to organize their world.  It’s also important groundwork for processing and remembering new information.

Here are some ideas for teaching categorizing:

Teaching categorizing while unloading the shopping…

  • Hold two items from the shopping (one food item, one non-food item) in each hand and ask questions to allow your child to distinguish between the two (e.g. “Which one can you eat?” “Which one can you wear?”)
  • Hold two items from the shopping that are visually different (e.g. colours, sizes) and ask questions to allow your child to distinguish between the two (e.g. “Which one is big?” “Which one is yellow?”)
  • When your child gets the hang of this, put several items representing groups on a table (e.g. things you eat, things you wear) and ask them to sort things “into the ones that go together”. Ask them why they go together.
  • When your child gets really good at categorizing, try putting a non-food item in a bag of food items and ask questions to help your child to pick it out (“Which one’s not the same? Which one is different?”)

Teaching categorizing with toys…

  • Put some toys representing groups on a table (e.g. farm animals, zoo animals, clothes, vehicles). Ask the child to sort them into their various categories (“into the ones that go together”). Then ask the child about why they go together.


Bowen, C. (2011). Modelling and Recasting. Available at: http://speech-language-therapy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=71:modelling&catid=11:admin&Itemid=117 [Accessed 4 June 2015].

Horst J. S., Parsons K. L., Bryan N. M. (2011) ‘Get the story straight: contextual repetition promotes word learning from storybooks’, Frontiers in Psychology, 2 (17), pp. 1-11.

Paul, R. and Norbury, C. (2012) Language disorders from infancy through adolescence: Listening, speaking, reading, writing, and communicating. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Ruston, H.P. and Schwanenflugel, P.J. (2010) ‘Effects of a conversation intervention on the expressive vocabulary development of prekindergarten children’, Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41, pp. 303-313.

Scanlon, K.O. (2015) 7 Ways to Improve Your Preschooler’s Vocabulary through Conversation. Available at: http://www.scanlonspeech.com/2013/06/24/7-ways-to-improve-your-preschoolers-vocabulary-through-conversation/ [Accessed 5 June 2015].

If you have any questions about any of the above, please don’t hesitate to contact us.



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