Vocabulary and language development for children

Kids often understand more than they can express; looking at receptive and expressive language

A focus in the elementary classroom has always been on building students’ vocabulary. Vocabulary includes speaking, listening, reading and writing. While each type is different, they are interconnected and heavily depend on each other. For example when a child is learning to read, they bring their background knowledge to the book, which in essence is the words that they already know about a certain topic. Likewise when you are speaking, it is difficult to have a conversation about a topic that you know little about!

One way to think about vocabulary is print vs speech and receptive vs expressive. Listening and speaking vocabulary are tied to speech while reading and writing are about print. However, listening and reading are both receptive types of vocabulary while speaking and writing are both expressive.

Receptive Language is Stronger

It is likely not a surprise that our receptive listening vocabulary is stronger than the other three. If you ever took a foreign language, you may still be able to recognize what people are talking about but are unable to write or speak. This happens to me with Spanish all the time! I took it for five years and I often can follow a conversation but when I try to contribute, I’m reminded how difficult it is to verbally express myself.

In fact, students in the early grades of elementary school can be at least two grade levels higher in their receptive vocabularies than their expressive vocabularies (Cobb and Blachowicz). This means that young kids can understand far more than they are able to communicate. Try it with your emerging language toddler. Ask them to do something specific. Chances are they can complete the task long before they can talk in complete sentences!

This also means we need to be very mindful of what we say in front of our kids. Kids are listening and picking up what you are putting down, even though they may not be able to articulate back what you said. Especially in light of the Coronavirus outbreak, make sure you are monitoring what you are saying around your kids. This includes what you have on the TV. That said, depending on the ages of your kids, don’t be afraid to talk about it. The Child Mind Institute published a great article that reminds us that not talking about something may actually make kids worry more.

Developing Vocabulary with Young Children

While the study of vocabulary is extensive, I want to give you some simple strategies to use with your kids. Research doesn’t show a hard and fast rule for the number of encounters a child must have to learn a new word. This is due to the fact that each child brings their background experience, interest, motivation, understanding of word characteristics, etc. which all come into play. That said, “infant and toddler learning studies and studies of foreign language learners report ranges of 10 to 40 encounters for infants and toddlers.” (from Cobb and Blachowicz).

Here are some ideas to help develop all four types of vocabulary:

  • Read to your children. The benefits of reading to kids are endless and deserving of its own post! Children develop phonemic awareness, as well as strengthened social and emotional development to name a few.
  • Listen to music. Music not only builds vocabulary, it also increases your child’s ability to listen and process information, increases sensory development, and builds coordination.
  • Play word/conversation games such as I Spy, categories, or simply playing with letter sounds. The car is a great time to play these. We will pick a letter sound, say /b/ and try and name as many things as we can think of that start with that sound i.e. bat, ball, butt (naturally), banana, bacon, beach.
  • Quickly teach new words in context. Without going into too much educational lingo, when you are reading to your kids quickly explain new words and then move on. For example, we were reading Jamberry and when we got to the canoe, I quickly said, “a canoe is a type of boat” and then moved on. We don’t want reading aloud to become a chore for our kids by bombarding them but it is the perfect time to quickly explain unknown vocab.
  • Keep books everywhere. I am working on a post on this but the benefits of reading/looking at the pictures are endless. From improving concentration and developing imagination to aiding in language development, books are like a super food.
  • Follow your kids lead. If they show interest in a topic, take them to the library, look up images on the computer, or go to a museum. When kids/students self select words they find interesting, they learn 64-75% of the words they selected (Cobb and Blachowicz).
  • Get outside. We often tell kids to use their “indoor voice” but their “outdoor voice” needs to come out as well! Being outside helps kids use all of their senses to explore, allows kids to think in new ways about nature, and aids in problem solving skills


  • Charlene Cobb and Camille Blachowicz wrote the book “No more “Look up the list” vocabulary instruction”
  • Child Mind Institute has a wealth of information helpful for families and educators


  1. a great word game for in the car, waiting at the doctor’s office, or any other time you have time to spare: say a word, then the next person has to say a word that begins with the last letter of word 1, then the next person says a word that begins with the last letter of that word and so on. For instance: car, red, drum, mango, orange, elephant, tent, trip, plan
    As your kids get older, words can get more complex — or you can say that only nouns can be used etc. It really helps them think about vocabulary and gets their creative juices going!

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