What’s in a word: helping your child build their vocabulary

Posted by I CAN / Tuesday 11 October 2016 / Activities Speech and Communication Parenting Tips

Did you know, the number of words that a toddler knows predicts how well they will learn to read when they get to school?

And, a child’s vocabulary when they’re five has more influence on how well they read at age eleven than anything else? Those are just a couple of reasons that developing a good vocabulary is so important for children.

But, how do we know how many words we should expect our children to know? Well, there are typical milestones for how and when children learn new words.



  • Children say their first words about the age of one (although they understand them for some time before this).
  • By about 18 months children should use about 20 words, but they’ll understand more.
  • By two years old, we expect children to say 50 words and understand between 200 and 500.
  • By three years old they’ll be able to use about 300 words.
  • By the time a child reaches five years old they’ll know and use as many as 2,500 words.

So, you can see that their vocabulary develops rapidly and we expect them to understand lots more words than they say, but this does change as they get older. There are lots of different things you can do to help your child’s vocabulary development.


Here’s just a few:

  • Having your child’s attention is important for word learning. Saying an object’s name while helping your child to look at it helps them to learn and remember names for objects that they haven’t seen before.
  • We know that having words and objects together is really helpful for early language development, from around 6 to 18 months. So, it helps your child to see the object you are talking about, as well as hearing its name. This helps them to make the connection and gives you the chance to explain what new words mean.
  • Encourage your child to use new words by giving them choices. So, rather than saying “would you like a snack?” ask them “do you want raisins or cucumber?”
  • Repetition is really important. Children need to hear a new word lots of times before they learn it properly, so keep saying the word you want them to learn!
Woman reading to child
  • Talk about how words are linked together and how they link to words they already know. They might be similar in what they mean (tall, high, long), or be words in the same group (cat, dog, hamster). Talking about these things helps children learn words well.
  • There are different types of words and children need to learn them all. So, they need a good vocabulary of doing words (like walking, swimming, driving), describing words (like big, heavy, red), and words that can be used to name things. 

Helping your child learn new words can be part of everyday activities; there’s no need to have a special time to teach words.

Things like shopping (finding things in different categories like fruit or things in tins can be fun), doing the housework or washing (sorting clothes into groups, for example dad’s clothes or things for your legs, or talking about how things feel as you wash them) or getting ready in the morning (naming clothes, and talking about the different actions like brushing, pulling, finding) are simple to do and really can help.

Have fun talking about what you can see when you are out and about, all the time helping your child to get more ‘word power’.

If you’d like more ideas, or are worried about the way your child is learning new words, why not have a free chat to one of I CAN’s speech and language therapists. The I CAN Help service can help with all aspects of language development.