What method is effective for teaching very young children vocabulary? I mean that you have a way of continuously teaching them more; you don't just run out. And you can tell it works, because when they identify the item the second time, they can put a name to it.

Most parents start naming household items, which is great (and practical), but you very quickly run out of items to name. YouTube is great for wild-life (different animals, birds, sea life, etc.) but I'm hesitant to stick my toddler in front of a screen for an extended period of time at his age.

What methods have you used that worked? Books are ok too, but run out too quickly.

  • 2
    if you visit the local library, you won't run out of books. Apr 11, 2011 at 17:58
  • @David we're already prolific library borrowers. Cheers
    – ashes999
    Apr 11, 2011 at 18:30
  • What do you mean by "Books are ok too, but run out too quickly."? Apr 12, 2011 at 14:06
  • @David non-library books run out quickly; we have boxes, but he's gone through all of them.
    – ashes999
    Apr 12, 2011 at 17:00
  • There's something to be said for repetition too though. Nothing wrong with reading a favorite book lots of times.
    – flup
    Jan 19, 2013 at 13:58

11 Answers 11


The best way to teach kids vocabulary is to talk to them all the time. When you go to the store, tell them what you are doing, what you need to find, name produce, etc. Just fill their brains with as many words as possible and let them sort it out. They will surprise you when they name a papaya or asparagus by site at the store.

We have used flash cards as well as different flash card apps on our phones or ipad. Our son loves playing and he has an incredible vocabulary. We also read a lot of books, sing songs and name the things we see. If kids are surrounded by language, they will pick it up.


We have always talked to our daughter as if she were an adult. It was rare that we would use baby words, though we would dumb things down a little in her earlier years (she is now 9). You soon grasp a child's vocabulary, so the first few times you use a new word with the child you need to explain it. It is the same with expressions - yesterday I was reprimanding her by saying "I give and inch and she takes a mile", then immediately asked if she knew what the expression meant (we live in a metric country).

When the child gets used to various words and hears then in context, then they remember them. When they come across them in books and other conversions, those words get reinforced.

Our daughter has a very full vocabulary now and excels at English in school.

On the other side, my daughter is bi-langual, but I speak her second language (Turkish) poorly so can only speak to her in dumbed down terms. As a consequence, her Turkish is at a similarly poor level.

  • Interesting note about bi-lingualism. I know my son's first/second language (Urdu) quite poorly, but other relatives excel at it.
    – ashes999
    Apr 9, 2011 at 19:39
  • My son, how just turned 3, has benefited from me learning a lot more Turkish in the 6 years since my daughter was born. Even though he goes to childcare where they speak English, still speaks primarily Turkish to us and thinks in Turkish.
    – dave
    Apr 9, 2011 at 19:57

Read to them, and then read to them, and then read to them some more.


Your question only asks about nouns - "things" to name, but verbs, adjectives, whole other categories of words exist your child will need to know too.

Play games. Hide things and use directional words to direct your child to the hidden object. Then, let them hide something and help you "find it".

Play games like "down by the bay" where you have to come up with sets of words that rhyme to make it funny. There are tons of "games" you can play with words that encourage rhyme like this. Do this in the car or while waiting for an appointment. Do it often.

List all the words you can think of that start with a favorite sound. A great way to get this started, is teach your child the first sound in his/her name. Then say what else starts with that sound. Offer a few examples and then brainstorm together. Do this when standing in line at the grocery, at the bank, wherever. Point is, do it often.

Play Eye Spy and describe things to teach an adjective vocabulary.

Do sensory activities to use additional descriptors. What does the Gak feel like? is it slimy, smooth, rough. . .? (for some examples of sensory activities you can access some on pinchxeverything.blogspot.com or at almost any site for preschool teachers.

Do lots of sorting and classifying. Find a bunch of old buttons and "sort them" together. Let your child describe why each button goes in the pile he has chosen. Are you sorting by color, shape, or something else?

Encourage your child to tell you stories about the pictures he/she draws. Ask so do you mean? and then use synonyms for at least one or two words occasionally during the sharing of this story.

As some one else said, READ READ REAd and then READ some more. Read the same books over and over again. Your child doesn't have to actually do the reading - its pretty early to learn to read, but you can read together. Choose books with refrains and encourage your child to say the refrain with you.

Spend time together and use "big words" alongside synonyms you know he already understands. Avoid baby language. Talk and then listen (even if he makes little sense, listen and paraphrase what you do understand). The, listen and then talk some more.

Cook together. Let him do the mixing (and maybe even egg breaking), he can probably slice bananas with a butter knife when needed. Talk about what you are doing as you do it. Your child will learn all sorts of nouns and verbs from this activity.

Go on nature walks. Describe everything from how the weather is and how the air feels to the way the ants move along the trail. Go slow and move at his pace, stopping to look at things he wants to inspect more fully. Ask lots of questions about what he is experiencing, seeing, feeling. . .

Fill his world with poetry - nursery rhymes, great children's books and song.


The answers given so far are great, and cover most of what I would have said--talk to them and with them constantly, and get them interested in reading. The only thing I would add on top of that is to teach them signs associated with the words. Of course, you will only be able to do this with a few words at first (unless you have experience with sign language), but it will help reinforce the vocabulary and will help them realize that there are meanings (real objects) associated with the words. At that point they will start to move from simply repeating sounds and making up new ones to actually using the words in the right context to describe the right things.

  • 1
    +1 for the signs. Best thing we ever did was teach or kids to make the sign for "more" at about 6 months.
    – Kevin
    Apr 11, 2011 at 14:29
  • See also this question about sign language. Jul 4, 2011 at 7:59
  • Another really useful sign was "all done," much better than throwing food on the floor to let us know he's done.
    – Rachel
    Mar 28, 2012 at 4:17

Since your child is a pre-schooler, I'd suggest you to focus on teaching him to read and make him interested in reading. Comic books are great for that.

Also from personal experience a great vocabulary booster are games involving words and letters.

  • The question indicates it's an infant or toddler. Still, for older kids, reading comics is great advice! Jul 4, 2011 at 8:02

In addition to reading, flash cards are also a great way to increase vocabulary. We go through them at dinner time and he picks up on them quickly. The same flash cards can be used first for identifying pictures and then for learning how to spell .


Nouns are great, but it's also important to include other parts of speech (adverbs, adjectives, etc.). My husband and I have always spoken to our kids using adult language, and our son has picked up on those words and uses them--and he uses them correctly! Even if you're short on books, focusing on other words in often-read books can provide a broader vocabulary. Asking the simple question of "Do you know what amazing means?" can give you some insight into what vocabulary your child understands in these books and what words he/she's just sort of glancing over.

And many times if I use a word that I know my son isn't familiar with, I'll ask him if he knows the word or knows what it means. Of course he doesn't, but it allows me to explain it to him. And I have no qualms about correcting him if he uses a word incorrectly or calls something by it's wrong name. I'm not mean about it, but if he calls a plantain a banana then I'll say something like, "It does look like a banana, but it's actually called a plantain. See how it's different from a banana?". The added benefit is that we get to teach him about differences and similarities at the same time.

  • I had to google plaintain, and I'm siding with your son :-) it seems that there are just different varieties of banana and people only say banana when they mean the Cavendish variety. Feb 17, 2012 at 12:32
  • Well, in my defense, my dad is a former produce manager and I happen to be a big fan of botany. I'm pretty well-versed in fruit varieties :-D But I do see your point.
    – Meg Coates
    Feb 17, 2012 at 13:07
  • With a (grand/)dad like that, it's important to know the difference! :-) Feb 17, 2012 at 14:00
  • Plantains require cooking in order to eat them, whereas bananas do not. Oct 28, 2012 at 22:50

Helping a child to develop a large vocabulary is very important. It is important because we know that possession of a large spoken vocabulary is one of the factors which determines success in reading and writing. Some of the other answers are correct and talking to the child all the time is part of the solution, but only part. Evidence tells us that the most effective way to help children pick up words and their meanings is twofold.

  1. Through improving their phonological awareness; - their ability to perceive and reproduce the sound system of the language. For instance English has 47 phonemes (speech sounds). The evidence suggests that the best way to increase the phonological sensitivity of the child is through rhyme and alliteration, which not only helps them to fine tune their sound discrimination, but helps them to perceive the 'onset and rime' of words and their syllable structure. The best way to do this of course is exposure to nursery rhymes and poems.
  2. Stories. - Sticking to the same two or three stories, (don't children just love repetition, - ever wondered why?), has the effect of enabling the child to construct a framework for meaning. - Very quickly he will begin to attribute meaning to certain words within the story and these words will act as a scaffold for him to 'fill in the blanks' as to the meaning of the other words. Soon he will understand the entire story and when he does, you move to another one.

These are amongst the strategies I use when I treat children who have language and communication impairments, especially children who have no spoken language, but they are applicable to children in general.


When our oldest began to talk, my husband started asking him simple open questions about the nature of things. I was a bit surprised, hadn't thought of that. But the little one liked that lots and happily tried to answer them. The answers can be great fun too.

Oh and riddles too. The animal riddles are great.

  • Absolutely! I question my kids all the time.. sometimes they come up with unexpected answers. Best of all this process is great for scaffolding their understanding and building their vocabulary.
    – Ian Lewis
    Jan 15, 2014 at 15:30

One of the most effective ways to improve your child's vocabulary is to provide them more word games. In this way, they will have a fun and exciting way to learn new words. You can expose them to Scrabble for instance. There are available scrabble games, suited for young children. You can also buy learning materials like books and other media, to help develop their vocabulary skills. There are also tools online like the http://blogmybrain.com/scrabble-word-finder/, wherein you can choose a level suited for your child's age. There are many other interactive vocabulary games online, which you can use to help your child improve their vocabulary, in a fun way.

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