Tips for Expanding Your Child's Vocabulary

Mother and son talking

Jamie Grill / Getty Images

It's a simple theory and an easy one to put into practice: The more words that your child hears on a daily basis, the more they'll learn, absorb, and eventually put to use themselves. And while vocabulary expansion usually happens on its own as kids meet other people and enter preschool, there is a lot you can do at home every day to teach your child to use descriptive words. 

To help expand your child's vocabulary, try some of these tips.

Converse Regularly

You are your child's best and first teacher. Help them increase the number of words in their vocabulary by simply talking to them. Research from Stanford University psychologists shows that talking more to your toddler helps them learn to process language more quickly, which accelerates vocabulary growth.

Point out new things, define words if you think they don't understand what you are saying—just talk to your child about everything and anything. 

Use Descriptive Language

When you talk to your child, use as many descriptors as you can (within reason). Instead of saying, "Bring me your shoes," try "Bring me your pink, lace-up shoes." Turn "Do you want to go for a walk?" into "Do you want to go for a long walk outside where we can look at the blue sky and colorful flowers?"

You can also find opportunities to model using descriptive language by describing what they want. For example, if your child says, "I want my doll," respond with, "The doll with brown hair? Or the one with the green dress?" (This will be good practice for when your child is a teenager and you'll be trying to get as much information as possible out of them!)

Read Together

Research shows that reading aloud to children exposes them to an even greater variety of words than conversing with them. This is because, compared to parent-child conversation, picture books are two to three times more likely to include a word that isn't among the 5,000 most common English words.

In fact, young children whose parents read them one picture book a day will hear about 290,000 more words by age 5 than those whose parents don't regularly read to them. This makes them likely to pick up reading skills more quickly when they enter school.

As you read, answer any questions your little one might have, and pose some of your own. Start with simple questions like, "What is the child doing?" or "What color is the cat?"

Pick picture books that use larger and simpler fonts. Your child will be more likely to also focus on the words.

Label Everything

Labeling household items is a great way to build your child's vocabulary. Pick a few items at a time to label, such as the refrigerator, chairs, and tables. Write the word on an index card in large, clear letters; then use tape to stick the labels to the objects.

Ask Questions

All day long your child asks you questions. Turn the tables and get some information from them. Your queries don't have to be anything complicated—just things that get them thinking and talking.

Play Word Games

There are plenty of toys and games on the market that teach kids about words—how to spell them, what they mean, how to read them, and more. And those are great! But you can also play some games at home or in the car with your little one that won't cost you a penny.

For example, play a rhyming game where you give your child a word and they have to rhyme. Or you can play a game of "I Spy." While reading a book with your child, simply say, "I spy with my little eye something 'yellow' on this page." Then your child can point or say what they think the item is. The possibilities are endless!

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Weisleder A, Fernald A. Talking to Children Matters: Early Language Experience Strengthens Processing and Builds Vocabulary. Psychol Sci. 2013;24(11):2143-2152. doi:10.1177/0956797613488145

  2. Massaro DW. Reading Aloud to Children: Benefits and Implications for Acquiring Literacy Before Schooling Begins. Am J Psychol. 2017;130(1):63-72. doi:10.5406/amerjpsyc.130.1.0063

  3. Logan JAR, Justice LM, Yumuş M, Chaparro-Moreno LJ. When Children Are Not Read to At Home: The Million Word Gap. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2019;40(5):383-386. doi:10.1097/DBP.0000000000000657

By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.