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Getting Wordy: 4 Ways to Improve Your Preschooler's Vocabulary

mother and child playing with toys

"Are we having pisketti for dinner?" your son asks, and part of you finds his mispronunciation adorable. The only problem? He's almost 4. Your kid isn't alone in his baby talk. While many children have an impressive vocabulary as large as 1,000 words by age 3, experts say that it's still normal for preschoolers to hold onto some of their little-kid expressions.

As cute as your child's choice of words may be, it's important to help him continue to develop his language skills. "When young children learn words, they are simultaneously being exposed to new ideas and concepts," says Catherine Snow, Ph.D., professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And providing lots of language interaction now will benefit him once he's in the classroom. "The single best predictor of academic success for children throughout the school years is their vocabulary when they start kindergarten," says Dr. Snow. We asked the experts for word-wise advice about getting your little one to speak like a big kid.

Focus on new words.

Take advantage of being one of the biggest influences on your preschooler's learning and make a point of introducing your child to new words while you go about day-to-day activities. At the grocery store, explain that the loaf of bread is also considered a carbohydrate and that chicken is poultry. An outing at the zoo could be a chance to introduce the concepts of mammals and reptiles. Kids often pick up the meaning of these new words based on context, but it's helpful to take a moment to teach to your child what the word actually means, says Paul Holinger, M.D., author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk. For example, tell her that mammals, like the tiger, the sloth, and the visitors at the zoo, have hair on their body and are nursed by their mother with milk. And don't be afraid to err on the side of more-challenging words. "When it comes to how you interact with your child, there's no reason to dumb anything down," says Dr. Holinger. With a 2-year-old, you may ask, "Do you want to wear the yellow shirt?", but you can expand on the idea when talking to your preschooler: "How about the yellow shirt? The shade of yellow is complementary to the color of your pants. That means they go really well together."

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Expand on his interests.

Preschoolers often have an obsession, be it trains or Dora. The next time your kid is chatting about his latest fixation, throw a few terms he doesn't know into the discussion. If he can't get enough of dinosaurs, explain what a paleontologist does, or if he's into dogs, talk about different breeds. Then, point out the labradoodle you see next time you're out. "When you talk to him about his interests, he's going to be fully engaged and excited about the conversation," explains Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. Kids this age are really good at retaining an impressive amount of info about their favorite subjects, so it's likely that the new words will stick.

Help her rephrase.

Even though you're introducing more-sophisticated terms, your preschooler may still hang onto some patterns of speech from her toddler days. Don't create a power struggle by pointing out what she said incorrectly. Instead, when she reverts to baby talk, just respond with the more advanced word. If she asks you for some "milky" with her snack, say, "Sure, let's get you a glass of milk." Keep in mind that anxiety can play a role in word regressions. Whether it's starting preschool or welcoming a new sibling to the family, big changes in your child's life can make her want to be treated as if she were younger. Which is why she may start calling her washcloth "squishy," something she hasn't done since she was in diapers. "It's normal to take two steps forward and one step backward in speech development," says Dr. Holinger. But be sure you've dropped these comfort words from your own vocabulary when talking to your child. If she hasn't made the switch yet, you can still continue modeling the right words in conversation.

Let him talk.

Help your preschooler practice speaking in sentences by giving him plenty of opportunities to get chatty. But first, turn off the TV, put down your phone, and make sure you're fully engaged. When you give him your complete attention, you'll be able to understand what he's trying to communicate and show him how to expand on what he's saying. Throughout the day, pick plenty of activities and make him want to vocalize his thoughts. Talk about what's going on in your neighborhood while you're driving, or stop and ask questions about what's happening in the story as you're reading a bedtime book. And remember to keep it fun: The best lessons in speech and vocabulary will come naturally when you don't try too hard to teach.

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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