Building Your Child’s Vocabulary

Let’s clear up what vocabulary is to start.  It’s your child’s word bank.  It’s made up of two main parts: the words your child understands (known as receptive vocabulary) and the words they use (known as expressive vocabulary).  We divide it in two parts because there’s typically a big difference between them in terms of size.  What we typically see is children understand far more words than they are use.  Think of a baby before they begin talking.  They may look to their Mum when asked “where’s Mummy?” or they may crawl over to their ball when told “go get your ball”.  They are not using words but they sure are understanding them!  It’s also divided up because everyone needs to understand words in order to use them.  Imagine being asked to use the word ‘susurration’ in a sentence.  For most of us, this would be a challenge because we don’t know what susurration means (and well done to those of you who do know!).  But if we told you it means ‘the indistinct sound of people whispering’ making a sentence with it becomes a whole lot easier!  So, if a child doesn’t understand a word we need to teach it to them first before we expect them to use it when they’re talking.

We’re often asked “how many words should my child be saying?”.  Here’s a general guide for their first five years:

Age Number of words used
12 months 2-6
18 months 20-100
2 years 200-300
3 years 900+
4 years 1500+
5 years 2500+


It’s amazing how much vocabulary growth happens in those first 5 years!  So, here are two key activities you can do to build your child’s word bank in their early years:

Talk with your child

We often say to parents “narrate your life”.  Talk about what you’re doing with your child as you do it.  It can feel strange at first but with practice it becomes a habit.  This will increase the number of words they hear on a daily basis.  Remember, vocabulary is a word bank so think of your talking as making a deposit.  Imagine the size of the word bank when regular, large deposits are made!  When you’re talking it’s a good idea to use repetition. This involves saying the same words several times in different phrases. For example, if you were teaching the word ‘car’ to your baby you might say “Look at that car.  Brrmmm.  Go car. It’s a fast car. Go car. Bye car”.   We do this because children need to hear a word lots of times before they understand it and then use it.  As children learn to talk, try to expand their vocabulary.  You can do this by giving them another word that means a similar thing.  So, if they say “I see a big tree”, you could say “Yes I see it. It’s huge, What a huge tree. That tree is so big, it’s huge”.

Read with your child

Sharing a book is a great way to make a deposit in your child’s word bank.  One of the many fabulous things about books is they create opportunities for your child to hear lots of new words.  Books about pirates, princesses, jungle animals, space (and all sorts of other topics) have words that we don’t come across in our day to day lives.  Don’t be afraid to use new, more complex words with you child.  They need to hear them to learn them.  Another tip when you’re reading a book with your child is to remember you do not have to read the story.  It’s ok to talk about the pictures instead.  If your child points or talks about the picture follow their lead and talk about it too.  This tells them that you are paying attention to them and are interested in what they have to tell you.  A very big motivator for children!


Please remember, this article provides general information only.  It does not replace individualised advice from a qualified speech pathologist.  If you are worried about your child’s vocabulary development please contact us or a local speech pathologist to discuss your concerns further.