Some ways to enrich your toddler's vocabulary

Heidi Stevens / Chicago Tribune /

Published Oct 20, 2013 at 05:00AM

Parent advice (From staff contributors at the Chicago Tribune):

Q. You want to enrich your toddler’s vocabulary. What do you talk to him about?

• We used to switch between “What’s this?” (naming various objects) and “Where’s this?” (searching for those same objects). Teaching a toddler the word “spatula” reminds you just how cool a word “spatula” really is.

— Phil Vettel

• Everything! Just get off the phone. Just talk. Just sing. Little children pick up sounds and become familiar with them. And they’re terrific mimics. That funny face you make? They’ll copy you. Same with sounds (as in words) when you point them out to them. Birds, dogs, colors, foods in the grocery store, whatever. You are feeding their bodies, of course, but also their brains with verbal input.

— Judy Hevrdejs

• A fine fallback to those monosyllabic conversations with your toddler — yup, they do get boring sometimes — is to read him a book. It’s that simple.

— Ellen Warren

Expert advice: “If you want to raise a literate child — which will pay dividends in so many ways — the recipe is simple,” says psychologist David Walsh, author of “Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids” (Free Press). “Talk, talk, talk. Read, read, read. Talk about things you’re doing, things you’re seeing, things you’re passing.”

“I’m not talking flashcards,” Walsh says. “I’m not talking vocabulary quizzes. I’m talking about the importance of conversation and the importance of reading to children and having that reading come alive when you editorialize and dramatize.”

If you feel a little silly carrying on one-sided conversations, know that your toddler is communicating back to you, just not in a way you recognize.

“Children as young as 3 or 4 months are vocalizing their attempts to mimic what they’re hearing,” Walsh says. “The babbling of an American baby will be very, very different from the babbling of a Chinese baby because they’re already attempting to mimic what they hear.”

Give your child plenty to mimic by narrating your day, giving voice to your thoughts, reciting rhymes, singing along to the radio. The payoff can’t be overestimated.

“If kids can decode words but they haven’t got the warehouse of vocabulary so that all those decoded words make sense, they get frustrated and their brains disengage,” Walsh says. “If I have a warehouse with a lot of vocabulary words and a lot of concepts already in it, as I decode the words I don’t get lost. That’s why language skills are not just the ability to decode and figure out how a word sounds, but more important, what the word means.”

Ideally, Walsh says, this stocking process happens early. “What we want our kids to have is a very well-stocked warehouse of words and concepts and meanings so as they either hear or read those words they don’t have to stop dead in their tracks,” he says. “The window of opportunity to stock that warehouse is before kids even get to school.

“We don’t stop stocking it once kids get to school, but we want them to have as rich a warehouse of information as possible when they get there.”