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

Your preschooler still has a few years until his first vocabulary test, but now is the perfect time to talk it up.
mother and child playing with toys

Lucy Schaeffer

"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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