It is so exciting when children start to talk. They often begin by babbling or saying “Mama” or “Dada.” It is a beautiful time; we like to soak it all in as parents. But you may also wonder about their language skills and how to help your child learn new words and build their vocabulary. You might also wonder when children should begin talking and what milestones to look for as they develop. And it is always nice to have expert tips on building children’s vocabulary.
We spoke with Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician with Mercy Medical Center, who gave us great information about how best to build and improve your child’s vocabulary. Let’s dive in.
How To Help Your Child Learn New Words
We can work on building our children’s vocabulary in many ways, and we should start very young. Dr. Woods explains that babies begin vocabulary building as early as six months. We have all likely heard that one of the best ways to introduce our children to language is to read to them, and Dr. Woods agrees. There are tons of excellent picture books on the market that show great images of animals, buildings, and cars that we can point to with our children and explain what they are, giving them plenty of new words.
Dr. Woods says one of the best ways to build a child’s vocabulary is to start using actual words with our babies from the beginning.
“We often begin to hear children making sounds, often referred to as cooing, near four months of age, and this turns into repetitive, sometimes purposeful, sounds (squealing and babbling) around six to nine months of age. Infants may also incorporate gestures such as lifting their hands to be picked up or waving with these sounds between nine and 12 months. So, it is fair to say that a child’s vocabulary begins as early as six to 12 months, with lots of variability,” he says.
When Do Our Children Learn New Words?
This is undoubtedly a long-term process; working with our children as babies will help build their vocabulary faster, Dr. Woods says. He encourages parents to look for a “burst of language” with many children between 18 and 24 months.
According to the American Speech Language and Hearing Association and the Mayo Clinic, children are expected to be using at least 200 words by the time they’re 24 months. If they’re saying fewer than 50 words at two years old, it could be a language disorder.2 Between the ages of two and three, most children are using as many as 1,000 words.3
What are the Best Ways to Build and Improve Our Child’s Vocabulary?
Reading to our children is extremely important in helping them learn new words and identify new objects. Dr. Woods also recommends music. He says parents need to spend time talking to their children. This can be telling them where they are going in the car or pointing things out in the grocery store. Children must also have words like “no” and “hot” in their vocabulary to keep them safe.
“Narration goes a long way whether it’s changing a diaper, or putting on clothes, or preparing a meal,” Dr. Woods emphasizes. We can introduce our children to new words daily. This goes back to talking to them and pointing out new things while experiencing everyday life.
Can Technology Help Preschoolers Expand Their Vocabulary?
Hundreds of apps are available that claim to be educational and will help children learn everything from reading and math to how to tie their shoes. While these resources may be helpful and convenient, Dr. Woods warns that parents must be careful when teaching children with technology.
“Overall, pediatricians are not very fond of screens and apps and technology before two years of age. There is a concern that it can create a behavior of expected screen time by the child. This is not good — even in the case of learning apps. Therefore, at this moment, pediatricians still endorse reading and learning from books and hand-held objects and puppets when possible,” he explains.
Dr. Woods also says pediatricians meet annually to discuss new developments and strategies so they can best care for their patients and prepare them for their future. “As such, newer recommendations regarding some flexibility as it pertains to screens and apps may be in our future,” he adds.
What are Some Milestones of Speech and Vocabulary Building for Kids?
Dr. Woods shares some things parents should look for regarding speech development and vocabulary.
- 12 months – A child should begin to babble words like mama and dada.
- 15 months – A child will add one or two words like dog, ball, or up. It is normal for a toddler not to pronounce all syllables.
- 18 months – Toddlers learn anywhere between three and five words and can identify many things around them or tasks they do.
- 24 months – Around the age of 2, children begin to put words and phrases together.
- 30 months – Just shy of 3, children should be using between 200 and 1,000 words.
- 3 years – A child will begin to have small conversations and ask questions like who, what, where, and why.
- 4 years – Here, a child will start to tell more complex phrases and can string four or more words together.
- 5 years – By age 5, a child should be able to tell a small story. (And boy, can those be fun!)
When Should Parents Be Concerned if Their Child is Not Building Their Vocabulary?
Dr. Woods says there could be cause for concern if a child is not saying mama or dada by the time they are one and if they have no additional words by the time they are 15 to 18 months old. A child who does not follow one-step commands, without gestures, by 18 months or whines for most things by age two may need additional resources.
These speech delays can be temporary and may be resolved independently or with some help. It is essential to encourage your child to “talk” to you with gestures or sounds, play with them, and read to them frequently.1
Parents Need to Be Patient as Their Child Builds Their Vocabulary
Dr. Woods wants parents to know that going to a professional with their concerns is always okay.
“We encourage parents to be patient but proactive. Pediatricians, speech therapists, and teachers are moving away from a ‘wait and see’ approach. Familiarize yourself with milestones and talk to your pediatrician,” he said.
While it is natural for a parent to be excited when their child does something new, it is essential to remember that every child is different and will learn new things at their own pace. Even if your baby has a sibling that did something at a specific time, remember not to compare. No two experiences will be the same, even if they grow up in the same home, so be patient as you help build your child’s vocabulary. Every child is special in a unique way.