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5 Easy Ways to Expand your Toddler’s Vocabulary

How often have you heard your toddler say NO, MINE, or MORE in the past 24 hours?

It would be kinda nice, don’t you think, if we could move beyond those particular phrases? Wouldn’t it be nice if he could say, “Please, Mum, I’d love some more apple juice!” sometime between now and preschool?

Don’t worry mama – I know all your available energy is already maxed out keeping that child intact, fed, and vaguely clean. Helping your toddler learn new words isn’t about squeezing in endless rounds of flashcards and checklists.

Building up your toddler’s vocabulary doesn’t need to feel like a test.  Picture something simpler.

Something cosier.  Something more akin to a relaxed coffee date. (Ah, remember those?)

Time for a Toddler Coffee Chat

Imagine sitting down for that coffee with a close friend, settling in for a catch-up chat.  You pass her a cup and she starts firing questions:

  • What coffee is this? Where’s it from?
  • What’s the method of decaffeination?
  • What’s the latest price per kilo of Guatemalan beans?

Weird, right?

It’s a conversation – of sorts. Maybe you were expecting a comment, like “This coffee is a total lifesaver”. Maybe, if your friend is such a coffee expert, she should supply the facts. Or maybe you wanted to talk about something other than coffee.

Switching back to our toddlers, think about how easily our conversations fill up with questions.  What’s this? What’s that? Can you say ‘banana’? Can you say ‘frog’’? What noise does it make? What color is it?

Often it’s our go-to method for ‘teaching’ vocabulary to little ones.  But for those on the shy side, intense questioning may cause them to back off and curl up, even when they’re confident of the answer.

And those kids that are struggling with a delay or difficulty in language development, a lot of questions means a negative double whammy:

  • The child can get frustrated easily when parents keep asking questions, and they don’t know the answer.
  • The child hears the same old questions over and over – instead of hearing the new and exciting words they need to learn.

Is it Bad to Ask Your Toddler Questions, Then?

Don’t get me wrong, questions aren’t the enemy.  Sometimes you really, really need to hear the answer. WHERE did you put my KEYS?

As children get more competent in their language skills, thoughtful questions can really open up new ideas and reasoning – but with these early language newbies, we’re looking to lay down the basics for future language and communication development.

So if questions are out, what else can you do to build up your toddler’s vocabulary choices? I thought you’d never ask!

Think About Your Toddler’s
Unique Personality

Just before we get into the techniques, though, spend a few seconds considering your child’s personality clues.

Like any other developmental skill, working on vocabulary will hit the biggest pay-out when it happens in a learning environment that best fits your child’s growing personality and interests.

This way when you choose your technique, you’ll know it will have the maximum effect!

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that hanging out in Starbucks is going to be the most motivating environment for your toddler.  Line up the triple espresso watered-down apple juice, and get comfy.  What would your little one’s preference be?

Maybe they’re a bookworm, happy to snuggle up on the sofa with you.  Perfect – children’s books are treasure troves for vocabulary learning.  The Very Hungry Caterpillar opens up his weekly grocery list.  Tiddler lets us in on all the ocean keywords.  This multi-tasking Owl checks out nature and colours at the same time.

Maybe they’re more of a kinaesthetic learner, and something like this peg puzzle is more up their street.

Or are they beginning to show some pretend play, copying the things they’ve seen you doing?  Grab the play food or the tea set… hey, maybe an imaginary cappuccino would do? (Yeah, sorry, I didn’t really think it would.)

You can even throw in the following techniques as you’re out and about – the school run, the grocery store, or the park can all give you opportunities for these simple strategies.

Building Toddler Vocabulary
Technique #1: Make a Comment

One of the easiest ways for you to boost your toddler’s vocabulary is to comment about the things going on around you.

  • Look at this grumpy lion!
  • That truck has so many wheels!
  • My favorite is the ladybug.

You’re, in essence, throwing out a starter for the conversation for your child to use as a launching pad. This gives him the opportunity to either go with your topic, or bounce on to their own ideas (i.e. their favorite bug).

Even if they don’t repeat words after you (and hey, keep the pressure off – don’t even ask them to), you are being a beautiful model, showcasing vocabulary for them in context.

This type of conversation feeds straight into their growing language system, ready for future use.  (It’s also a great beginning step for solid social skills!)

Building Toddler Vocabulary
Technique #2: P A U S E

The next time your toddler points to or comments on something, hold back for a moment.

Just for a few moments.

Let him surprise you with a new word, action, or idea. It gives him  the chance to initiate and learn to be an active conversation partner, rather than always having to accept (or reject!) our direction.

Building Toddler Vocabulary
Technique #3: See Their Bid, and Raise It

Repeating the words your child uses acknowledges and affirms what she’s told you. It confirms that you were, in fact, listening to her. (That’s a great emotional deposit for her!)

It also gives you an opportunity to expand on her idea, providing even MORE lovely language modeling.  For example…

  • If your child says “plane!”; you can say “yeah, a big plane! It’s flying!”
  • Or if your child says “uh oh!”; you can reply with “uh oh, the wheel’s broken!”
  • Or she says “drink!”; and you come back with “I’m drinking the tea! More please!”

Try adding a descriptive word (big, little, soft, happy, tired) or an action word (jumping, dancing, hiding, sleeping). Your child will eventually start to make the connection between the words she’s hearing and what she’s seeing. She’s smart like that!

Building Toddler Vocabulary
Technique #4: Use Choices

Okay, so it’s going to be impossible to give choices without asking a question…but it’s a different kind of question, so I’m giving myself a pass.

These very special questions to encourage your child to think through vocabulary choices.

  • Is it a frog or a lizard?
  • Is it a fire truck or a police car?
  • Is it green or blue?

Use this technique for those emerging words that your little one may not have fully grasped yet, or gets muddled up. Giving options help him learn how to select the right vocabulary word (say, police car) from the bigger category (vehicles).

Children can usually understand a word long before they use it in their own talking, so they may well know the right word when they hear you say it.

Building Toddler Vocabulary
Technique #5: Find Similarities

The final easy technique you can use to enhance toddler vocabulary is to allow your child to show their knowledge about words, not just name them.

Again, provide them with a verbal launching pad by encouraging your child to think through words that are alike. Here are a few suggestions to try out:

  • Here’s a yellow plate… let’s find something else yellow.
  • Can you find another thing that goes fast?
  • What else in the picture likes to jump?

Learning that words belong in categories is a big part of building a strong toddler vocabulary, which leads to a stronger preschool vocabulary!

Books to Help Make Comparisons

One of the easiest place to make comparisons is while you are reading books together. Here are a few picture books that make conversation starters like this particularly easy.

Learning Vocabulary Happens Naturally

Remember, you are naturally your child’s language model. It’s not something you have to cram onto your to-do list, or worry endlessly about doing it “right.”

Let these suggestions percolate in the back of your mind. Keep them floating in your subconscious as you walk through the city, read a book, or play in the park. Then trust your instincts, and allow them to pop up at just the perfect teaching moment.

Developing your toddler’s vocabulary is like meeting that good friend for good coffee, and letting the conversation flow, taking turns to share ideas with each other.

Having relaxed time to share a new favorite book or experience will open up language opportunities for your toddler without you having to overthink it.

So snuggle up and enjoy the interaction, and cherish those new words coming along!

Have you noticed an uptick in your toddler’s vocabulary recently? What new words has he discovered?

Have You Read These Yet?

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