Aug 07 , 2020

8 Ways to Help Preschoolers Build Vocabulary

The key to building effective emerging readers doesn’t just lie in reviewing educational posters and workbooks. Before setting foot in a school, kids learn all about words through direct and meaningful experiences. When a toddler visits the park with his parents, he learns all about trees, grass, and fountains. When young girls get a haircut for the first time, they learn all about shampoo and scissors. The more meaningful and enjoyable experiences a child has, the easier it becomes for him to build a great vocabulary bank.

Principles of Effective Vocabulary Instruction

Traditional methods of learning and constant memorization aren’t very effective on very young kids. Learning can only be achieved when a child is interested and motivated enough to actually do it. Doing fun learning activities for even just five minutes a day can help a child build significant progress and move closer towards effective early reading.

Before planning and implementing creative learning activities at home or in your own daycare, it’s important to keep these principles for effective learning by vocabulary researchers William Nagy and Steven Sahl in mind:

1. Vocabulary instruction should be integrative

Kids don’t learn new words simply by reading cut-and-paste definitions. Instead, they learn more effectively by connecting new words with already existing pieces of knowledge. For example, a child who loves anything and everything about soccer must learn that “Field” refers to the area where players move around.

When teaching new vocabulary words to your child, aim to build upon what they already know instead of trying to introduce something new and unfamiliar. You can use word-map games to help your child visualize how words are connected, or teach your child synonyms to familiar words using fun learning games. Don't forget to connect words to things your child already knows and loves.

2. Vocabulary should be learned deeply through active processing and discussion

Effective vocabulary instruction isn’t simply a matter of memorizing word lists. Young learners need to be able to make connections between what they’ve always known and what they’ve just learned. When conversing with your kids, provide plenty of opportunities for them to apply their newfound knowledge and explain what they’ve understood as best as they can.

Steven Sahl refers to the process of connecting new and old knowledge as deep processing. Deep processing during learning consists of three main levels:

  • Associative: During the first level of deep processing, learners make connections between one word and another. Providing synonyms for new words or pointing to objects that refer to a certain word are examples of deep processing.

  • Comprehension: The second level of deep processing happens when learners are able to apply what they know about a word through actions, such as sorting nouns and verbs together or providing the missing words of songs.

  • Generational: The third level of deep processing refers to using words in new ways. Some examples include redefining a word in one’s own terms or using a word in a brief sentence. Parents of younger kids can use simple and fun writing activities, such as encouraging preschoolers to complete the sentence “Today, I _________” to achieve this level of deep processing.


3. Vocabulary instruction needs to include repetition

People don’t instantly learn something after hearing about it once. Effective learning requires repetition and reinforcement of concepts. Kids should be provided with plenty of opportunities to demonstrate and apply their newfound vocabulary words every day, rather than simply memorizing long word lists. Don’t be afraid to play learning games and organize learning activities every day. The more your child gets to apply his knowledge, the better he’ll be at reading and writing later on.

4. Words and concepts are best learned when presented in meaningful ways with attention to definitional knowledge

When young learners are given the chance to use new words in meaningful ways it becomes easier for them to not only remember definitions but also figure out how words should be used. Older kids who are learning in groups can improve their word banks through read-alouds, guessing games, and sharings in line with a certain topic. Younger kids can engage in various games related to topics like shapes, colors, and sizes. You yourself can also teach how words are used in more meaningful ways by providing examples or using song and dance instead of only relying on a textbook.

5. The teacher’s own attitude toward words and word learning plays a critical role in vocabulary instruction

Laughter and smiles are contagious! A child’s mood often depends on the mood of others around him. If a parent teaching vocabulary appears strict and uninterested, his or her young student won’t build any enthusiasm for early learning. On the other hand, if a vocabulary teacher is excited and inventive, his or her students will have more fun learning how to use brand new words.

The best way to achieve an exciting and effective learning environment is through interesting activities. Rather than relying purely on pre-made books, take the opportunity to invent games and present lessons in unique ways. Unleash your inner Shakespeare and act out wonderful stories, or have fun creating your own colorful posters and word books with your child. Remember to make learning as fun and interesting for junior learners as possible.

Activities for Improving Vocabulary in Young Kids

Boring learning just doesn't work at all. The best way to help your kids build a great knowledge of vocabulary at home is to immerse them in fun and exciting learning activities every day. Here are some great ways to help little learners build word banks at home or at day care.

1. Read, Read, Read

In this age of streaming and online videos, more and more families are relying on movies and TV shows as an easy source of entertainment. Although there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few minutes of Dora the Explorer with your toddler every day, you might not want to rely too much on television as a tool to build worlds.

Kids have an easier time learning words from simple storybooks than TV or smartphones. Books encourage readers to enter new and unique experiences by using rich and interesting words. When kids listen to a story or read a storybook with their parents, they learn how to comprehend text and understand new words. The more you and your child read together every day, the easier it becomes to build a wide and varied vocabulary before elementary school.

2. Talk and Chat Daily

Mood and relationships with parents have a tremendous effect on young learners. Even if your child isn’t old enough to answer a workbook just yet, you can still immerse him in the wonders of language through new experiences and daily conversation.

Visit the museum and point out the planets. Take a trip to your local park and name all the flowers there. Bake a cake at home and introduce ingredients. As your child enjoys more and more new and interesting experiences each day, he gets to learn important words and move a step closer towards effective reading.

3. Expand Your Home Library

Young and eager learners love the thrill of reading and enjoying brand new stories. Take the opportunity to buy new storybooks for your child and build an impressive collection of kid-friendly literature. If you’re more of an E-book person, look for E-books that encourage participation and interesting storytelling. There’s no limit to how many great and wondrous stories your child can learn from at home.

You and your child can also visit your local library for new and interesting reading material. The best libraries to check out typically have special areas where young kids can read, run, and dig for new books without any problems. On the other hand, adult-oriented bookstores and libraries without any play areas might not be too ideal for younger kids since your child needs opportunities to express feelings and exert energy.

4. Introduce New Words Daily

Immersion is a young student’s best teacher. Kids learn the most from what they see, hear, and observe. As such, parents should be good role models and examples for their young and curious learners. Don’t be afraid to introduce new words and synonyms in your daily conversations. Carefully explain what a word means to your child and give them the opportunity to try saying, spelling, or reading it. Of course, make sure that the words you’re introducing are reasonably easy for your child to understand.

Reading Rockets provides some helpful hints for parents to keep in mind when introducing new words to their kids. Try helping your child expand your vocabulary through the following process:

  • First, define the new word in very simple, easy, and kid-friendly terms. For instance, you can say “Giant means something really really really big!”

  • Next, relate the new word to a child’s daily experiences. For instance, you can say that the word “Giant” describes the trees in your backyard or the watermelons at the store. Remember to use experiences that your child enjoys and is very familiar with.

  • Let your child provide his own example. Ask your child to point out things close to the meaning of the word. For example, if you’re teaching your child the word “Tiny”, you can ask him to point out things that are very small.

  • Practice and reinforce knowledge. Once your child has become familiar with the meaning of a new word, give him as many opportunities as possible to use it in daily conversation. You can also do fun writing activities or games to help your child remember all the new words he’s learned.


5. Play Fun Learning Games

Learning shouldn’t have to be boring. You can make vocabulary building fun for your child by playing fun and creative learning games at home. Feel free to use anything you can find at home. For instance, if you have a few houseplants, you can encourage your child to touch and identify various parts of a plant. If you want to teach your child all about colors and shapes, help your child describe various furniture or pets using simple adjectives. The possibilities are just endless!

Kids who are more energetic might want to have fun outdoors. You can give them great opportunities to build their vocabulary by playing a modified form of tag. Simply assign whoever’s “It” to say new and interesting words, then run around and have fun while learning. You can also assign kids who are “It” to shout the synonym of a certain word to make the game more exciting and challenging.

6. Have Fun With Colorful Objects

What kid doesn’t have fun with bright and shiny things? Play around with any exciting object you can find, such as candy and crayons, to teach your child all about colors and shapes. You can also encourage your kids to build essential fine motor skills by letting them pick up, grasp, and hold various objects while they learn new words.

Of course, it’s important to make sure that your objects of choice aren’t harmful to little hands. Soft objects without any sharp edges or harmful chemicals are a must for little learners. Here are some kid-friendly objects you and your child can have fun with at home:

  • Cotton balls
  • Clean cloth sheets and towels
  • Plastic or paper plates and utensils
  • Small measuring cups
  • Soft candy
  • Lego blocks (these are better for older kids who’ve grown out of swallowing toys)


A lot of parents these days are tempted to rely on computers and phone games to help their children learn in fun and creative ways. Although digital learning tools are great for older kids and teens, they might not be that reliable for toddlers and preschoolers. Young kids learn best not by simple listening or speaking, but by touch and play. It’s best to save the online games and consoles for when your child has made good progress in elementary school.

7. Make Memories With Music

Songs are a fun and easy way to introduce your child to rhythm, rhyme, beats, varied sentence patterns, and new words. The catchier and more entertaining a song is for kids, the more fun and exciting learning at home becomes. Songs that encourage participation and group play are also a great way to not only teach kids about new words but also help them learn to play with others.

You don’t have to limit yourself to standard pre-school songs. There are a ton of music-based activities your child can learn from both at home and at school. For instance, you and your child can build your own fancy musical instruments using arts and crafts materials. During this time, take the opportunity to teach your child all about words like “string”, “sound”, and “beat”. If you’re aiming to teach a lesson on environmental consciousness, feel free to build wonderful creations using old shoeboxes and other recyclable materials.

Another great way to encourage higher-order thinking skills is to do fun “Fill-in-the-blank” activities with songs your child is already familiar with. Sing the lyrics to “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, then pause and ask your child to guess the next word. If you want to make music games easier for your child, you can also write different answer choices on strips of paper. Instead of wracking his head and guessing, your child can choose and pick the right word to complete the song.

8. Label and Sort Objects

One way to help your child build a better vocabulary is to help him connect new words with objects every day. Using paper and tape, play games where you both get to label different objects around the house. Don’t be afraid to try fun labeling games at the park or in family friends’ houses, either. After all, the more new and exciting games a child plays, the more essential information he gets to learn.

Sorting is another great way for kids to build incredible vocabulary banks. Not only does your child get to learn brand new words while sorting toys and books, but they also get to refine their fine motor skills by picking up and dropping various objects. You can even turn sorting into a fun learning game using laundry baskets and other household objects. If you and your child are avid basketball fans, try to see who can make the most shots in one basket!