Developing vocabulary

Vocabulary is an important part of language development. It refers to the number of words a person understands (receptive vocabulary) and uses (expressive vocabulary). Your child’s vocabulary will develop rapidly in the first few years of their life, from a few words around one year of age to many thousands by the time they begin school.

Children with larger vocabularies learn more quickly, understanding and remembering information more easily. They communicate more effectively and so develop better social skills and problem solving skills which helps with managing behaviour and emotions too. They develop stronger literacy skills which further helps their learning. Helping your child build a well developed vocabulary has lots of benefits to your child and your family. If you are concerned that your child may not be using as many words as they should have a look at the checklists on our website. These will give you information about what is expected at your child's age level.

Picture cards are an inexpensive way to develop your child’s vocabulary and they can be used in lots of different ways. You can change and develop the way you use them as your child learns and grows. You can buy picture card sets or lotto games in toy and book shops. You can also download some sets to print from the downloads in Our website resources early language page. There are also more picture cards on the vocabulary page.

Start with pictures of things that your child has seen in their daily life and gradually add new items as their knowledge of words develops.

1. Begin by getting your child’s attention, showing your child the picture and modelling the name of the item in a clear simple word. You may need to repeat this stage a number of times as children learn by repetition.

2. When your child has heard the word a number of times you can ask them to point to the picture, to show their understanding.

3. Next you can ask them to repeat the word after you, and finally to name the picture all by themselves.

4. When your child knows the names of the cards you can introduce sorting into categories and developing descriptive words and concepts of colour, size and shape.

To help your child retain their new vocabulary use games to practice the words lots of times. Younger children can find the cards hidden around the room, or “post” them into an empty tissue box. For preschoolers and older children print three copies of the picture boards and cut two up into individual cards, leaving one set as a whole sheet. You now have all you need to play a range of games including lotto or bingo, memory matching and go fish. You can also attach paper clips to the cards and “catch” them with a magnet on a string for a simple fishing game.

How to develop vocabulary and language skills in school aged children

Vocabulary is one part of language that continues to develop all though life. Try talking to an eight year old about dinosaurs or a twelve year old about computers and you will probably learn a few new words. Young children’s vocabulary starts with names of people and things, but grows to include action words and describing words. Older children learn descriptive words, categories and concepts and develop an understanding of how different words relate to each other. At school children need to know the vocabulary that goes with each topic or subject that they learn. Without the right vocabulary it is hard to learn new concepts and to understand and remember new information. A well developed vocabulary helps with reading fluency and comprehension, oral and written language, social skills and problem solving.

Here are some games that can be played to develop descriptive language and higher level vocabulary. You can play these games using card sets such as from lotto or snap games or you can make your own card sets from clip art or Google images, or even just write the words onto cards. The card set in the "partners game" which can be downloaded from our resource page is suitable for using these games with older children.

1. Find it. Place all the cards face up on the table. One player writes down the name of one picture on a piece of paper without showing anyone else. Players who cannot yet write could stick a small sticker on the back of the chosen card. Players take turns to ask questions such as “Is it an animal?”. If it is not an animal all the animal cards are turned face down. If the answer is yes, then all cards which are not animals are turned face down. Discuss with students how a “useful question” means that you can turn over more cards. This encourages thinking skills and reduces guessing. The last card left should be the one chosen. This game develops categorisation, descriptive skills, understanding of negatives and positives and problem solving skills.

2. Describe it. Place all the cards face up on the table. This time a player chooses a picture and gives a number of “clues”, around three to five works well. The other students then have turns to guess the item. Encourage “good clues” rather than tricking the other person. This encourages the students to think about the other person’s perspective and what they “need to know” to solve the problem. For groups the person who guesses wins. For pairs, both are the winner if the picture is guessed in three or less guesses. This game develops categorisation, descriptive skills, and understanding of other’s perspectives.

3. Match it. Place all the cards face down on the table. Players take turns to turn over two cards. The players can make a match if they can describe something that is the same about the two pictures e.g. they are both animals,round, red, used in the kitchen and so on. If they cannot make a match the cards are left face up and the next player turns two more cards and can make matches from any of the four upturned cards. The winner is the person with the most matches. This game develops categorisation, descriptive skills, understanding of characteristics, similarities and differences .


Match and Add. As players make a match they must say “These are the same because they are both X and another things that is X is…”

Same and different. As players make a match they must say “These are the same because they are both X and a thing that is not X is…”

Snap it. As above but play as snap game where players take turns to put down a card and can snap if they can describe a similarity between the two cards.This version encourages quicker thinking.

Have lots of fun developing your child’s language skills.

If you are concerned about your child's language development browse our website to see how Talking Matters may be able to help you.

Have fun learning!

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