Supporting Preschool Vocabulary Growth

We know that it’s important to support breadth and depth of vocabulary development in our school-aged kids. But, did you know that it might be even more important if you work with preschoolers, specifically? There’s actually evidence that typical preschool classrooms lack quantity and quality of talk (Wells & Wells, 1984; Wilcox-Herzog & Kontos, 1998). And, kids who have lower verbal abilities are talked to less in the preschool setting (!!!!) (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog, 1997).

So, obviously if you’re a parent or teacher to a preschooler vocabulary development definitely should be on your radar! This study provides a simple, yet effective, way to embed word learning in everyday conversation. If you’re looking for a low stress, low prep, naturalistic method of teaching kids new words, this is it. For the intervention, the researchers trained undergrads to be “talking buddies”.

The buddies worked with 3- and 4-year-olds in pairs to:

  1. Use recasts to expose them to rare words.
    • Child: Look, that one’s really small! Adult: Small! What’s another word for small?….How about tiny?
  2. Expand and restate their utterances.
    • Child: Red car go. Adult: The red car is going fast!
  3. Ask open-ended questions and encourage further conversation.
    • Child: See this? Adult: I do see that! Can you tell me more about it?

After talking with the buddies for 25 minutes a week for 10 weeks, the kids who received the intervention (even those with initially low vocabulary skills!) improved in the number and variety of words that they used. And, possibly the best part? The talking buddies only received 4 hours of training in general techniques to stimulate conversation as well as the specific strategies that were used to introduce new vocabulary. For this study, undergrads worked with the kids, but it would likely be just as easy to train parents, day care providers, classroom aides, or preschool teachers. Any of these professionals could include these focused conversations in their interactions with small groups of kids during snack time, on the playground, or during center activities. This type of easy-to-implement, inter-professional collaboration is exactly what we need to make sure that the preschoolers on our caseloads are achieving their vocabulary goals!

Ruston, H. & Schwanenflugel, P. (2010). Effects of a conversation intervention on the expressive vocabulary development of prekindergarten children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2009/08-0100).