By Elen Wales - Service Lead for Milton Keynes and Specialist Generalist Speech and Language Therapist, Developing Specialist in Hearing Impairment
Your vocabulary is a product of who you are, where you’re from and what you’ve done. No-one else will have the same vocabulary as you and I think that’s kind of cool. If you imagine all the words you know were written down it would be like your autobiography, your ‘autovocabiography’.
One of my favourite books, being an unashamed speech and language geek, is Dialects of England by Peter Trudgill. He talks about the different words used to mean ‘truce’ by children in games in different parts of the UK, and has a map labelled with which were used where:
‘Truce’: barley, keys, skinch, kings, crosses, exes, cruces, cree, scribs, fainties
Sure enough my Dad used ‘kings’ in Scunthorpe and my Mum ‘skinch/skinchies’ in Sunderland.
Most children hear about 45 million words by the age of 3. To develop a typical-sized vocabulary, between the ages of 18 months - 6 years, they need to learn about 8 new words a day. And that’s learn. Not just hear, or be exposed to, or say once, but to fully understand and be able to use appropriately - crikey.
Vocabulary development is affected by:
experiences: things we see and do, either in our own lives, or with others
memory: ability to remember and retain the word
opportunities: to practise and hear the word repeatedly
motivation: how important / interesting is learning the word to the child?
cognitive abilities: any learning difficulties or cognitive impairments
Research shows a child’s vocabulary is one the best predictors of educational achievement and employment. It’s our job, as parents, teachers, therapists and adults working with these kids, to help them write their own autovocabiography.
'No one else will have the same vocabulary as you and I think that’s kind of cool.'
So how can we do it, how can we nurture them to be best-sellers? Well, there’s lots of ways and you don’t need a whole load of resources to do it. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that words are more than their spelling. If you want to sound clever you can call it ‘semantics’, but this just translates as ‘word meaning’. The overall goal is to develop a child’s semantic network, or web, of what the words mean and how they link to one another.
Consider the word ‘spoon’. We know that:
it has 1 syllable and rhymes with ‘moon’
it can be made of metal, plastic and sometimes wood and come in a range of different sizes
it is in the same family as the words ‘knife’ and ‘fork’, and that word family is called ‘cutlery’
we use a spoon for eating, stirring, measuring and serving
it has a handle part and bowl part, and is normally hard and sometimes shiny
spoons are often in drawers in kitchens and on tables or in hands in the dining room
the word can also be used as a mild insult implying someone is stupid
Imagine a word like a spider on a web in the brain. When the spider has a strong web, and is linked to lots of different information about the word, if the child forgets a few of these links the spider is safe and web can still hold the spider in the brain. If the spider has a weak web, and is only connected to a few bits of information about the word, then if these few bits are forgotten the web cannot hold the spider and he falls out of the brain:
To build strong webs we need to approach the word and learning process from lots of different ways, utilise the power of repetition and keep it fun. You can try the following:
‘Word of the Day/Week’: stick it on the fridge as reminder for them and you, see who can use the word the most, maybe keeping a tally on the fridge as you go
Read: support the child to read, read to them, get them to track the words as you read them - it’s all good
‘I-spy’: play I-spy but instead of using clues about what letter the word begins with, use information clues, e.g. “I-spy something made from metal…found in the kitchen…we can use to eat with…”
Word stickers: It is notoriously hard to get kids to do extra work outside of school, but a bit is better than nothing. I send kids home with stickers on which have a word we have been working on, and if parents only have time to ask the kids why they have a bizarrely large sticker with a random word on, on the way to the car, then it’s a good start.
Make it multisensory: turn it into a cheerleading song, e.g. “give me an S…S!...give me a P…P!...”
Word associations: start with a word and the next person needs to name something related and continue around everyone, e.g. ‘spoon - soup - bread - butter - cow - black and white - newspaper - book - paper’. Because everyone’s word webs are linked in different ways, it’s always surprising when someone links something to a word you never would have!
Don’t give all the information straight away: cajole them into a conversation with you, e.g. rather than saying “I went to a party at the weekend”, just offer a teaser such as “You’ll never guess where I went at the weekend…”
Lastly - don’t underestimate the capacity of these kids. I’ll never forget the time a 5-year-old boy, with a language delay I might add, used the word ‘googolplex’ in a session with me. It took me a good few seconds to pick myself up off the floor and dig around in my brain for a vague meaning of the word, which I recognised, but would never have remembered to use. I’ve now listed him as co-author of my autovocabiography - I’m hoping it’s going to be a best seller.
Trudgill, P. (2000) Dialects of England, 2nded. Wiley