Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do You Know What a Haberdashery Is? My Toddler Does: 5 Fun Ways to Learn Vocabulary

I came across two very fun books at the library that I couldn't pass up:

by Jamie Lee Curtis and illustrated by Laura Cornell


13 Words
by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Maira Kalman

At first glance I wasn't sure if baby bookworm would be "into" these books since they are on the longer side and the story lines are a lot more involved than your typical baby/toddler book.  But, to be honest, while baby bookworm loves her lift-the-flap and board books, she's really outgrown them.  I even think she might be outgrowing some of her "simplistic" picture books too.  So, I thought we'd give these "advanced" books a try.  I am a firm believer that children should constantly be challenged, and that they should be engaged in some activities that are actually slightly above their ability level.  Plus, I could tell these books would be a super fun way to sneak in a lesson about vocabulary, which is also super important. Why is learning vocabulary so important?  Well, vocabulary knowledge is related to success in school; children with larger vocabularies tend to have better success in Kindergarten.  Vocabulary knowledge is also related to reading comprehension; children with larger vocabularies are better able to understand what they read.

Teaching your child new vocabulary words doesn't have to wait until he is in first grade and has a first vocabulary test!  In fact, you may not realize it, but things that you are doing with your newborn and/or toddler are influencing his vocabulary development every day. 

There are a few easy "tricks of the trade"- however - that can help to speed your baby bookworm's learning along. 

1. Talk.

In fact, talk your child's ear off!  Research conducted by psychologist Janellen Huttenlocher has shown that babies whose mothers talk to them more have larger vocabularies in toddlerhood than babies whose mothers were less talkative. The difference between the two groups amounted to 131 words at 20 months, and a whopping 295 words by the age of two. 

Secondly, use varied vocabulary.  Research published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (Nov/Dec 2006) has revealed that fathers of two year olds who used more varied vocabulary when speaking with their children showed better expressive language skills at three years of age.

Need ideas of conversation starters?
*While you are bathing your newborn, narrate exactly what you are doing:

"Let's wash now behind your ears.  Now let's scrub that tummy of yours.  How about those dirty chubby toes?  Let's count them...." 

Of course, you can extend this activity to just about anything you are doing.  When baby bookworm truly was a "baby" I loved to narrate while I was cooking dinner. 

*While sitting down for dinner, recap the activities of the day with your child.  Baby bookworm and I do this daily - it's our way of bringing daddy bookworm up to speed on what he might have missed. I usually begin by saying something like,

 "Tell daddy what we did today,"  or "tell daddy about the animals we saw at the zoo," or "daddy wants to know about the books we read today...."  

Then we ask daddy about his day.

*Talk about your memories.  Talking about something in the past not only helps a child to remember that event, but he also gains important narrative language skills and new vocabulary.  I feel like I'm constantly saying to baby bookworm something like:

"Remember when we visited the beach and you had an Easter egg hunt?" or "Remember the day you got lucky money for Vietnamese New Year? Do you remember what color the envelope was?"

2. Label.

This shouldn't be too difficult if you have a toddler because I'm sure you have heard the words, "What'z that?" or "What's this?"  Toddlers are so naturally curious about their surroundings.  When baby bookworm was about a year, I'm pretty sure these were her favorite words. 

Take advantage of your baby's curiosity as a way to introduce new vocabulary.  You will be surprised at some of the words that your baby can actually understand and say.  Productive vocabulary grows at an incredible rate between 18 months and 2 1/2 years. Children as young as two also use a process known as fast mapping, where they can infer a word's meaning from the context (both linguistic and nonlinguistic) in which its used to make a quick and accurate guess.  It's amazing when you really think about it!

3. Play. 

Break out those dress-up clothes, trucks, cardboard boxes, and play kitchens and pretend away!  Research conducted by psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn has shown that children who engaged in more pretend play over the course of a three year time span scored better on tests of expressive and productive language development than children who played more with non-pretend toys (e.g., puzzles, blocks, peg-boards). 

It turns out that pretend play provides more opportunities for vocabulary enriching-interchanges. 

4. Do. 

Children often learn through doing.  While many of your child's first words will be nouns, as your child's productive vocabulary increases, verbs, adverbs, adjectives and function words are likely to make more of an appearance.  While it's easy to point to something like a ball or a chair to teach your child the words for them, abstract words might be more difficult to grasp.  Here's a few fun ways to help your child understand new vocabulary.

Want to teach action words?
*try using them in a song.  For example, ring around the rosie is a fun way to learn the phrase "all fall down".  The itsy bitsy spider and open, shut them are also full of action words that are associated with hand movements. 

Want to teach a few new adjectives?
*try doing a "hands-on" learning project.  For instance, if you want your child to know the word rough, get out a piece of sand paper and run his fingers along it.  If you want to teach the word cold, play with some ice cubes.

Want to teach emotion words?
*try using the words in context and acting things out.  For example, if you want your child to learn the word sad, tell him about a time you were sad, and show him your sad face. 

.......................................and drum roll please........................................................

5. Read. 

Oh, you saw that one coming, did you?  Well, this is a blog about learning through books so I guess there aren't many surprises.  And truthfully though, reading is one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary. Check out my post on rare words for several methods to increase vocabulary knowledge through reading. 

Or, better yet....Check out these two fabulous books where the authors have done a lot of the hard work for you.  These books specifically highlight some pretty fun vocabulary words; while some of the words in these books are simple like bird, cake, or love, others are more grandiose such as despondent, stupendous, or panache.  I even promise you that you'll learn a new word too (I mean, I didn't know what a haberdashery was until I read 13 Words). 

In BIG WORDS, the vocabulary is written in a different style or colored font in order to stand out.  Definitions of the words are learned through the context of a wonderful rhyming story.

13 WORDS actually numbers each of the 13 words.  New vocabulary is also learned through context and pictures in this quirky (um...very quirky) tale about a bird (word number 1) who is despondent (word number 2) and how his friends try to cheer him up with cake, hats (from the haberdashery - word number 9), and a song from a mezzo-soprano (word number 13). 

I would say that baby bookworm truly understands now what it means to be "irate," "despondent," and "stupendous" thanks to these books.  Oh, and her new favorite word by far from these books is disgusting, which she tells me means "ick like poops in a diaper".  I highly recommend both of these vocabulary-teaching tales!  

Read these books already or hungry for more? 

You might want to check out A Rattle of Bones: A Halloween Book of Collective Nouns by Kipling West.  It's highly appropriate for this time of year, and highlights fun words for groups of things.  Apparently a group of crows is actually called a "murder".  I didn't know that!

One Foot, Two Feet by Peter Maloney is also on our to-read list.  It's a counting book that cleverly introduces irregular plural nouns. 

Now go show off your new vocabulary, and I hope someone tells you how "stupendous" you are.   


  1. We like a book that is a fractured fairy tale that uses a lot of big words. I can't remember the title. It has a synonym for red in it though. Really good.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Let me know if you think of the title. Checked out your blog and it's awesome! I'm sure I'll find some great learning ideas to do with baby bookworm.

  3. Great blog, love coming across new and good books to read to both of our little bookworms.

  4. Thanks for the great reading recommendations! I checked out 13 Words and Big Words For Little People at our library. I love them and my boys are intrigued by all the great colors and sounds. I'm just waiting for them to use "despondent" or "irate" while talking to another 2 year-old. :)


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