Vocabulary is the best single indicator or intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school. – W.B. Elley

Engaging with your toddler, reading books and talking with them about their world has never been more important. A new study in the journal aptly named Child Development found that children who had good oral vocabularies (what they could express) by age two were better prepared kindergarteners academically and behaviorally than others in their classroom.

They noticed gaps in oral vocabulary began emerging as early as two years of age. That means its important for parents and preschool teachers to spend some time engaging with toddlers in activities that will expand the 2-year-olds’ vocabularies. So how do we do this?

Tanya Christ and X. Christine Wang developed a list in Supporting Preschoolers’ Vocabulary Learning based on current research. I’ve paired examples from The Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle.

1.  Point and label – direct the child’s attention to the word and say the word. This helps the child connect the word and the image. For example, point to the word “road” on the story page and then point to the picture of the road in the book. As you read the story, point to the words related to the animals the little truck sees: a frog, a sheep, etc. Taking care to point to the words and images, so the child can see the relationship between the words and images.

2.  Ask questions that require a use of the word – As you read a book with your child or students, ask a comprehension question to see if they use the word thereby creating a memory of the word’s sounds. For example, “What does a farmer use to carry hay and supplies from one place to another?” and the answer is “a truck.”

3.  Ask questions that require using related words to help the child establish a relationship between the vocabulary word and closely related words. You could say, “A truck is a kind of ____ ” and vehicle would be the answer. Name some other vehicles that take you from one place to another. What other vehicles would a farmer use?

4.  Give short definitions – explain the meaning in a short, child-friendly definition to help promote understanding. The original story begins, “Horn went ‘Beep!’. Engine purred. Friendliest sounds you ever heard.” Explain that when an engine “purrs,” it means the truck is working well. 

5.  Use extended approaches – provide opportunities for the child to process and use the words in a deeper way. Talk about the animals the little blue truck passed on the road. What other animals could it have seen that aren’t in the story? What sounds would they make?  What does a ship see as it sails along? …and on and on.

The point is as soon as a child can attend to a book, keep in mind that vocabulary is very important to their successes in kindergarten and beyond. Pay particular attention to children at risk. Their parents are struggling to put food on the table and may not have the time to interact with their young ones which may result in smaller vocabularies. Preschools and HeadStart programs should put vocabulary high on their list.