How to improve your child’s vocabulary

It’s never really been clear to me how I ended up in special education classes my freshman year of high school. But there I was: Algebra for the slow learners (confession: I could barely keep up with them).

But what’s really amazing to me that I was also in Reading for Dumb Kids. Of course they didn’t call it this. I forget what they called it, but everyone knew that smart kids just had English. That was a real class. I had a class that didn’t count as a real class.

I also read two or three books a day. They weren’t at grade level, though. I think it’s autism, but I’m not sure. I did not read at grade level, probably until college.

Yet I have a very good vocabulary. I say this not having a very good measuring stick. I scored in the bottom 20% for the GRE. (Yet I still got into graduate school for English, proving that either the tests are stupid or the graduate schools are stupid. Or both.)

Anyway, I am proof that a good vocabulary does not come from reading difficult books. Because I simply do not read difficult books. I read Love in the Time of Cholera but it nearly killed me and I still have no idea what the book is about.

I read Dead Souls. I think I might have skimmed. Because I couldn’t really tell you anything about the book that I couldn’t glean from a book review of the book.

So now, for the most part, I only read book reviews.

1. Teach kids to care about words.
You don’t need to read great books to have a great vocabulary. But you do need to care about words. I love letters. I love words. I ran for class president because I liked writing the slogans for my posters.

I entered an art contest because I wanted to write a poem about a clown in the shape of a clown. When I got last place (only generations before the Millenials faced child art contests that had a last place) I thought to myself that the person didn’t read the poem. I told myself it was a first-place poem and art with words is so nice.

The thing is that I’m not sure you can teach a kid to care about words. Do you know what my favorite part of seventh grade was? Diagramming a sentence. I was blown away at how organized language is. So forget teaching a kid to care about words. You have to engage a kid with something the kid already cares about. Just like most education.

2. Play with words.
My family is full of outstanding Scrabble players. The kind that get 40 points from a two-letter word. In fact, I used to spend hours just reading the Scrabble dictionary and memorizing two-letter words.

But my brother grew up in the same house I did and he hates Scrabble. So again, it looks like the urge to play with words is another thing you are just born having, not teachable probably.

Or maybe it’s that you have to find the right way to play with words. A study from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden says, “Young people who play a lot of interactive English computer games gain an advantage in terms of their English vocabulary compared with those who do not play or only play a little.”

This study surprises no one who actually plays video games. There’s a discussion on Reddit about the research and one person wrote, “I already suspected this. After all, I didn’t learn the word zealot in church.”

A game we play at our house is Cards Against Humanity. It’s an x-rated game, but my ex-husband spent hours and hours sorting the cards to make a PG-rated game.

It’s word based, fill-in-the-blank, and the vocabulary is so advanced that there is a specific rule in the game that if you don’t know what a card means, you have to ask for a definition and then put the card in the discard pile and draw again.

My kids have learned things like object permanence and jazz hands. But what they’re really learning is that words are fun.

3. Spend time with people who love language are rich.
My mom used to pay us five cents for a four-syllable word. (Ironic since she’d beat us in Scrabble with her arsenal of one-syllable words.) But it is so ingrained in our heads that even now, in middle age, we scream out “Five cents!” when a sibling uses a four-syllable word.

I was going to tell you that my mom was on Jeopardy and my dad graduated from Harvard, but you know what? I don’t believe they made me love language. I think I just found a way to connect with words.

And research shows I’m not alone.

If you have a big vocabulary you probably don’t even worry about the vocabulary your kids have. Actually, even if you don’t have a big vocabulary, if you have a big bank account, your kids will have a big vocabulary.

A study at Stanford found that there’s a direct correlation between socioeconomic status and vocabulary of kids as young as infants.

This gap comes from how kids hear more words if they are spending more time with rich people than poor people. It makes sense. A rich mom is home all day, attending to the baby’s needs and talking to it. A poor mom is taking care of too many people, worrying about rent and food and probably working two jobs. Also, a big factor of vocabulary is how much time the kid is around the father, and most impoverished kids do not live with their father.

So the truth about a big vocabulary is that if you grow up with parents who are educated you will have a big vocabulary. Because of the way parents and kids interact. A caring, focused parent chatters away to the baby all day long. (I was stunned to discover that researchers group nannies, daycare providers, and low-income mothers as a single demographic when they study the root cause of the vocabulary gap.)

This research shows me kids don’t learn vocabulary in school. Not that I didn’t already know that. I did nothing in my Reading for Dumb Kids class except that when I used the words on our vocabulary tests in real classes the teacher would tell me to use language in my writing that is more true to me.

Here’s how your kid can build a vocabulary that is true to him or her:

1. If you want your kids to have a good vocabulary, have a smart, primary caregiver.

2. If you are rich and educated, you don’t have to worry about your kids building a vocabulary.

3. If you are not rich or not educated then you should try things like video games. Researchers found that kids who play video games have bigger vocabularies than kids who don’t.


35 replies
  1. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    So scrabble cultures then.

    I love scrabble and grew up playing fun, competitive games with my siblings. Plus we’d play loads on holidays so have great memories of playing on the beach or in hotel rooms.

    Then along came the in-laws, who also love scrabble, but they each drive me crazy in different ways when we play scrabble. My mother-in-law is a word snob and would rather make an obscure word and score less points than a common word and score lots. I think she takes pleasure in people challenging her word then she gets to explain how it is a real word and tell everyone the meaning. Then there’s my brother-in-law who is very good but very competitive and takes ages to play his turn and gets bad-tempered if he’s not winning so takes all the joy out of it. But the worst is my father-in-law (an INFP) who spends his whole time trying to open up the board so others can score better!@$!!

  2. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    It might be worth pointing out that the study you refer to is of Swedish children who are learning English as a second language. It points out the benefit to their school-based language study of the extra-curricular activity of MMORPG gaming in English.

    “The importance of coming into contact with English outside school, for example by reading English or, as in this case, by playing computer games, means a lot in terms of young people’s English vocabulary. It also has positive effects on what happens at school in the classroom. The subject of English at school and the English that the young people encounter and use in their leisure time are not two separate worlds,”

    It’s not clear that the study has any relevance to native English speakers.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      In addition the movies/TV shows imported from England and US are usually shown in english with subtitles. That has a huge impact on language skills in Scandinavia and the Benelux countries. And results in many Swedes speaking a quite vocabulary-rich english – even the older people who grew up before video games.

  3. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Also, tell your kids to listen to rap music. Many rappers have an excellent command of vocabulary, and their sense of whimsy regularly leads to new applications of existing words.

    I can’t find the article, but if I stumble across it I will post the link.

      • Hannah
        Hannah says:

        Thanks! This is one of articles that came to mind.

        I think most of the other articles are published in academic journals and the only reason I read them was for an etymology class in college. I studied the word Fit which has expanded in definition over the last several decades and it was primarily rappers that changed the word. Useful class, no. Fascinating, yes.

        For all those who are wonking out on etymology, the academic journals are fascinating- usually word studies are published in sociology journals.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      That’s what I keep hearing but I just can’t get into rap that isn’t sugar coated with some sort of pop-ish music.

      Maybe I’d listen to good rap if the rapper wasn’t dressed in thug clothes or constantly talk about bling and hoes and drugs.

      My best example of Flobots. They don’t need to dress in suit and tie for me to be interested. But now that I think of it, wouldn’t that be something?

      “Look at me, look at me
      Just called to say that its good to be
      Alive in such a small world
      I’m all curled up with a book to read
      I can make money open up a thrift store
      I can make a living off a magazine
      I can design an engine
      64 miles to the gallon on gasoline
      I can make new antibiotics
      I can make computer survive aquatic
      Conditions I know how to run the business
      And I can make you wanna buy a product
      Movers shakers and producers
      Me and my friends understand the future
      I see the strings that control the systems
      I can do anything with no resistance ’cause

      I can lead a nation with a microphone
      With a microphone
      With a microphone
      And I can split the atoms of a molecule
      Of a molecule
      Of a molecule”

      (It’s Handlebars)

    • MBL
      MBL says:


      I’m not a rap fan at ALL, but the movie 8 mile is really good. On youtube I just re-watched “8 mile all 3 rap battles with eng subtitles”. You could watch them without having seen the movie, but you wouldn’t get all of the references and it would probably spoil the movie for you. My husband and I quote the “Clarence” bit from the third battle all of the time. I realize that it is a scripted movie, but to see the need for a strategy, ability to gauge the audience, and think on your feet is pretty awe inspiring to see.

    • mh
      mh says:

      I agree about rap music. It has playfulness and creativity, more than most other forms of modern music. The combinations are great.

  4. Kristi
    Kristi says:

    It’s unfortunate to see a lazy phrase like “dumb kids” used in the same post that says “teach kids to care about words.” :/

    • Disagree
      Disagree says:

      Meh. It was a style choice to show how watered-down and simplified the lessons were. Calling it the “Dumb Kids Class” reflects that much better than other more complex euphemisms.

      • Karelys
        Karelys says:

        When you write “special ed. class” it evokes some sort of deeply caring people with the highest level of training and expertise.

        But when you say “dumb kids class” you’re talking about the teachers who are stuck that trimester with those classes.

      • Kristi
        Kristi says:

        They aren’t euphemisms. As someone who cares a lot about words, I do think about the differences between being accurate and just being PC. And about when it matters. Penelope talks a lot about different types of intelligence. In the context of an education blog, it matters.

  5. jessica
    jessica says:

    Can you start a forum on here? Would love to have a links page for things like the rap vocabulary and to generally continue the discussions, ideas, suggestions..

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hi, Jessica.
      My hope is that discussions like this one continue here – on the post where they start – until people get tired of the topic – like rap lyrics – and then we move on to something else.

      If there is a topic that any of you want to talk about, a great way to get the conversation started is to write a guest post. I love publishing guest posts here. I learn so much from them.


      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I would love a forum also. I don’t think that it would impact comments here very much since I think people would still post here when the topic is current. Old posts rarely get re-ignited anyway and the really old ones still don’t allow new comments. But thank you SO much for responding to my request re-open more recent ones! I REALLY appreciate it!

        Because synthesizers think everything is related, it is kind of frustrating to keep things bottled up. Most things are not worth a full on re-hash, but may still be worthy of discussion. If they were to spark something on a forum that would be a good indication that actually are blog post worthy.

        But I realize that I am just whining now, because I really am grateful for what to do offer.

  6. LisaP
    LisaP says:

    ” It’s an x-rated game, but my ex-husband spent hours and hours sorting the cards to make a PG-rated game.”

    Did you know it’s an x-rated version of Apples to Apples?

    • Becca
      Becca says:

      Cards against Humanity is ever so different in it’s structure as it has fill in the blank cards which require you to put down multiple cards. It’s more challenging, in my opinion.

  7. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    Good vocabulary is an asset when trying to show rich people that you’re a part, that you fit with them. And rich people is where the good jobs are at. You do the same amount of work that you would do with non-rich people and get paid so much more. I’ve been there.

    I know I’ll never be rich. You need too much focus when you’re poor to become rich. And I care more for other things. I just want to be in a solid financial place and that doesn’t require the kind of focused work and sacrifice that being rich requires.

    I grew up with a great vocab thanks to my parents but I had to hide it because it wouldn’t let me fit in with the kids around me. And I didn’t naturally fit with them but instead of being lonely I conformed myself around them. I couldn’t sustain friendships with the people I naturally connected with because they were rich and I was at the other extreme (like the kind of poor where you don’t have a real toilet or real shower and you have lived without electricity for a while).

    And I feel sort of stuck between these two worlds still. Thank heavens for the internet! it satisfies that intellectual need of hanging out with people with a breadth of knowledge without having to turn down their constant invitations to very expensive vacations.

    I love my husband because somehow he is a rich kid with no money. And that is such a natural fit for me. He has the most interesting conversations and I can take him everywhere. But then we come home and put on sweats and we watch Brooklyn 99 and laugh our heads off.

    As for my kids I am not even worried that they won’t have good vocabulary. I am not worried about much for my kids now that I think of it. I don’t have anything to hand them but I know that they’ll learn how to get it themselves. And that’s all I care for; teaching them how to fish, or lead the horse to the water.

    I hate those sayings because I have no patience for animals. It’s like dealing with a toddler all your life!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Karelys. I think the big problems with kids happen when kids are bigger. People always used to tell me “little kids, little problems, big kids big problems”. And it’s true.

      One of the big problems is that when kids are little they do not ask for stuff. As kids get bigger they are very conscious of where they are socioeconomically. And parents feel the brunt of that.

      I would have to say that 90% of people who I coach who say they have to earn more money are people with school-aged kids who thought they’d be fine with the amount of money they have, but as their kids grew older, they were not.


      • Karelys
        Karelys says:

        I know. I’m an example of that. It got to the point that we didn’t ask for school supplies just so we wouldn’t stress out our parents.

        That’s not going to change quickly if the problem is present when the kids begin to realize the limitations of their parents. So I think it’s better to arm the kids with the ability to figure out how to get what they want or need. And I’m not talking basics like food, shelter,clothes, etc.

        There’s this boy who trains in skiing or snowboarding and is too young to do professional contests. The parents are more than able to pay for the expensive equipment and training but the kid does his own fundraising. I thought it was brilliant. He’s going to need those skills and attitude for life.

        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          Karelys, I think you might be surprised how much of this is created by the school environment. When kid’s natural competitiveness is socialized in large groups in school, it becomes shallower and focused on visible things like clothes and electronic devices. I recall being in school and being jealous of kids whose parents could afford new clothes or to take them on ski vacations. I wasn’t similarly jealous of kids on my street or in my neighborhood because they were in the same situation I was.

          The sociological term for this is “relative deprivation.” School can really skew a kid’s frame of reference.

          People also tend to buy electronic devices and other expensive junk for their kids either out of guilt because they can’t spend time on them but they can spend money, or because their kids are unruly and won’t shut up unless they’re diddling with a screen, so some schoolkids in every group have these things, and all the others then want them.

          When you’re homeschooling a big kid, there’s just not as much keeping-up-with-the-joneses going on, absent the school frame of reference and shallow value system. Your big homeschooled kid will be aware that he’s got something money can’t buy, which is your time.

          Also, as you point out, your kid is much more likely to be able to get his own money sooner than kids in school – this means both that he’ll know what it’s worth and that he’ll be able to take care of some of his own needs.

  8. Becca
    Becca says:

    I grew up playing pictionary with my family as a kid in the 90s. When I got a card I didn’t know the word, which was fairly often, I’d have to have someone come in the other room with me and tell me the definition. I miss pictionary!

    I was that child that loved words and grammar. It translated into me loving to learn other languages because romance languages are so mathematical with the grammar.

    I out vocabed my classmates though as a child and that was very isolating.

  9. bea
    bea says:

    I think I’d add a number 4 to this list: Have your kids read Calvin and Hobbes.

    My kid has a great vocabulary. And she is a natural speller and fearless when it comes to pronouncing multisyllabic words she’s not quite sure of (and usually spot on). I’m a linguist, but despite the fact she’s grown up hearing about language variation and etymology and all the rest of it, I can’t take credit for her vocabulary. I credit Calvin and Hobbes. I’m not even kidding. She was an early-ish reader and she loved Calvin and Hobbes and read every bit of those comics, repeatedly.

    I distinctly remember a day when she was around 6, she was sitting and reading a C&H book and she asked me what “instantaneous” meant. She showed me how it was being used in a the strip and I noticed lots of complex concepts and words. I realized that those comics were a vocabulary trove. Lo and behold, that day she started experimenting with the word. She said something like “my love for Buddy (our dog) was instantaneous” or something equally amusing.

    Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d recommend Calvin and Hobbes for vocabulary, reading and comprehension, and an introduction to philosophy for kids.

  10. kats
    kats says:

    I never thought a great deal about vocabulary. There was a lot of political discussion in my family, and I learned to get in there and try to express my opinion. In the school I went to, they never discussed vocabulary. We just discussed things and wrote about them; I enjoyed this, so I participated.

    I would sometimes wonder what my son was learning in school with English. Did he know how to read…. The school never made a big deal of learning to read. One day my son read an article out loud to me from the paper and I was relieved. It seemed like a magical process.

    When I home schooled my son, I racked my brain, finding creative ways of trying to teach him to spell better and to not have run on sentences. At times I felt like a failure. When he went to middle school this year, all of a sudden his spelling instantly improved and writing is easy!

    I guess what I am hinting at, is that people seem to learn things when they are ready. It is not about sequential learning but readiness.

    We just may learn something when our bodies and minds are good and ready. This could be at 5, or it could be at 30 or 45….

  11. mh
    mh says:

    Playing with words leads to learning more words?

    Video games and comics and playing?

    This is my favorite thing. Learning is a playful activity.

  12. Imran Soudagar
    Imran Soudagar says:

    I think it was fun for you and your siblings playing the Five Cents game. I wish to do the same with my kids some day (when I have kids). Being born in a country (India) where English is the second language, I grew up loving English novels and stories. Thought I cant say that I have the best vocabulary but I have fun reading and teaching. :)

  13. Em
    Em says:

    I have read several places about the gap in number of words heard by rich and poor kids. I find it confusing how to apply this information to interaction with my own toddler. I think self directed exploration is very important so I try not to be up in her face all the time. But at the same time that seems to conflict with recommendations to talk to your baby as much as possible to help language development. You also seem to be saying in this post that it is positive for kids to hear more words.

    So what is the balance? Maybe it is more important for parents to do a lot of talking when the child is pre verbal?

Comments are closed.