Early Childhood Vocabulary

The development of early childhood vocabulary is an important foundation for language development and early reading skills.

C hildren learn a lot about language in their first year of life. Their amazingly absorbent brains soak up the words and meanings they are exposed to as they prepare to use this information.

B abies begin by vocalizing sounds and cooing, imitating speech using many different sounds (babbling), and then using simple words such as “cup” and “go”.

And always they are listening - to the voices of their parents and siblings, to music, to the sounds made by their toys.

This may not seem important, yet research shows that early childhood vocabulary is essential to language development, and later reading, spelling, and writing skills.

Learn more about the importance of Early Literacy from our other resources on the subject.

A lthough vocabulary instruction doesn’t generally occur until children enter school, what they learn at home can determine the trajectory of their future vocabulary development.

Starting at about 12 months and continuing through adolescence, children learn an average of ten new words a day if they are in an environment where they hear new words (Bloom, 2002).

F or children who are surrounded by meaningful language and more robust vocabulary, the cumulative result is staggering.

C hildren who are exposed to a vocabulary-rich environment in childhood begin kindergarten having heard approximately 45 million words while a child from a vocabulary-limited home will have heard only 13 million words.



B ased on research summarized in The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap (Hart and Risley, 2003), a vocabulary deficit before age five seems to extend across time making it difficult for children with limited early childhood vocabulary to catch up later.

Vocabulary acquisition in early childhood is the introduction to the most important component of language and reading: words.

H ow exciting when a young child responds to spoken language and begins to communicate using words that can be understood!

Early childhood vocabulary is viewed as one of the building blocks of a solid reading foundation and the preparation for phonemic awareness, the first pillar of reading.

Early Reading Activities: Early Childhood Vocabulary

Engaging children in conversations is the primary method of supporting the development of early childhood vocabulary. Talking with children about what they see and experience in their environment and exposing them to new words, starting when they are very young, is essential for building vocabulary.

Reading with young children and providing time to explain new words, associate words with illustrations, and answer questions is a recommended method of increasing vocabulary.

Looking for opportunities to introduce vocabulary in a child’s everyday environment and use new words repeatedly is another simple option. “The people who live near us are called neighbors. The Jones and the Browns are our closest neighbors.”