I often find my six-year-old at a loss for words. He wants to express himself, but his vocabulary doesn’t match up. He isn’t shy; he just does not have the words for many things and feelings. I see older kids with really poor vocabularies, too. How do I get my son to expand his vocabulary and enjoy using language to communicate well?
It is always a pleasure to listen to someone talk well in any language. But a good vocabulary is not to be confused with the use of “big words”. Communication is about the ability to use the right word for the right feeling, the skill to articulate thoughts so as to make them accessible to the listener.
Parents keen that their children develop a good vocabulary will buy dictionaries, coax them to mug up “meanings”, goad them to read more—all to improve the vocabulary. But an acquaintance with a large number of words is hardly a guarantee of good oral skills. And this is what we do when we ask very young children mini-test questions such as: “Where is the fan?” or, worse, “Which school do you go to?”—questions to which we know the answer and the child knows that we know!
Why converse with a child as if life is a fill-in-the-blanks session? Such questions never lead to any real or actual conversations—which is the stuff that makes for a good speaker or communicator. If you hold a real conversation—however tentative and faltering—with a child, you are encouraging him to think, feel, choose words, form sentences and to truly express himself. And you are also teaching him to listen. He then does not just have to merely wait for your question, he has to engage in a conversation that involves absorbing ideas and generating his own response, even at a very basic level. This is so much closer to the skills that he will actually need in the world, rather than the ability merely to label things right by plugging in the right word.
Of course, showing your child a ball and asking “What is this?” is one way of working on developing his vocabulary. But a much better way is to engage in conversation and allow language to happen. There are some key ways in which this can be done:
u Don’t hesitate to use all the right and “grown-up” terms for something that the child enjoys. For instance, if a child is fond of dogs, you can chat with her, however young she is, about what the dog eats, how you groom it and what games it plays, without indulging in baby talk. This way, a host of new words and concepts reach the child. He may not be able to use them immediately and appropriately, but the conversation is bound to open up a whole new world of terms for her—and children love that.
u It is believed that children, from the time they learn to speak till the age of about six, learn at least 20 new words a day. This happens not through vocab exercises and question-answer sessions but through talking, reading, writing and playing with words. They begin to relish language play, even the interplay and punning between their mother tongue and English. A child recently joked about going for a bath and eating bhath (rice), much to his parents’ delight. Kids take obvious delight in language—tell jokes, play word games, simply rhyme words. Invest time in playing with words, sentences and ideas with your child.
The goal, then, should be not a strong vocabulary but a strong involvement with the world around them. Vocabulary will follow.
(Write to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org)