Strategies to Teach Vocabulary

When we’re talking about vocabulary development, first we have to know how children’s vocabulary naturally develops. Before school, children’s vocabulary grows as they are exposed to language while interacting with their environment.

While natural language exposure works to develop vocabulary, many circumstances can negatively affect this process like whether a child is DHH (has hearing loss), has a language delay, or comes from a poor family. By their 3rd birthday, a child whose family is receiving welfare has heard 30 million words less than a child from an affluent family.

The research that revealed this word exposure gap became the instigating factor for programs like the Thirty Million Words Initiative because an expansive vocabulary promotes academic and professional success. There’s a lot of discussion of why children from lower SES families have less language exposure, but let’s instead focus on what we can do to develop a child’s vocabulary intentionally and successfully.

 Vocabulary in Everyday Interactions

As you interact with your child during your daily routines, talk about what you’re doing. Be like a sports caster who’s giving a play-by-play. Narrate your life.


When I first started grad school and was learning how to narrate, I felt a little crazy and a lot of awkward. It was weird knowing that behind the one-way glass my supervisors were watching me talk to myself. Despite being self-conscience, I kept on narrating and it soon become so natural that I started narrating my life was I was alone making breakfast.

While narrating your life to a young child, use short and simple sentences. As your child gets older, use more complex language and longer sentences.

Narration could sound like this: “I’m really hungry. I need to eat some food. Hmm, what do I want to eat. I want some cereal. First I need a spoon. My spoon is in the drawer. I got a little spoon. Now I need a bowl….”

Auditory Bombardment

While narrating what you’re doing, use auditory bombardment. Auditory bombardment is when you say a target word over and over again. The goal is to say the target word tons of times so that the meaning of the word really clicks for your child.

An example of auditory bombardment with the target word of ‘tree’ could sound something like this: “I see a tree! Do you see the tree! That tree is really big. There are lots of green leaves on the tree. We’re walking under the tree. Look! Now the tree is above us.”

Strategies for Intense Vocabulary Support

When you really want to intensely teach vocabulary, explicit and direct instruction is the most effective.

  1. New/Familiar/New
    1. With this strategy, you introduce a new word, compare it to a familiar word, and then restate the new word.
    2. Some examples of this are “This is Robin. It’s a kind of bird. This Robin is flying.” and “He looks angry. He’s feeling very mad. I wonder why he’s angry.”
    3. This is a really easy strategy to use when you’re reading a storybook.
  2. Music
    1. Incorporating vocabulary into simple, repetitive songs and pairing it with pictures is an effective strategy to teaching vocabulary. (This was actually my friend’s thesis project and I got to implement the intervention. It really does work and its’s fun for the students!)
    2. I do this all the time on the fly. Just keep a few simple tunes in your head and it’s easy to put together simple rhymes with the vocabulary words.

Here’s an example with target words of: seeds, rain, sun. Tune: Farmer in the Dell

The seed goes in the ground, the seed goes in the ground, hi-ho the dairy-o the seed goes in the ground.

The sun begins to shine, the sun begins to shine, hi-ho the dairy-o the sun begins to shine.

The rain begins to fall, the rain begins to fall, hi-ho the dairy-o the rain begins to fall.

Sun and rain to grow, sun and rain to grow, seeds need sun and rain to grow, grow, grow.

When you really want to intensely teach vocabulary, explicit and direct instruction is the most effective. Click To Tweet

What are some strategies you use to encourage vocabulary development?


Cheng H., & Fumham A. (2012). Childhood cognitive ability, education, and personality traits predict attainment in adult occupational prestige over 17 years. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 81, 218–226. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2012.07.005

Hart, B., & T.R. Risley. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young american children. Baltimore: Brookes.

Hart, B., & T.R. Risley. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator 27 (1): 4–9.

Lund, E., & Douglas, W. M. (2016). Teaching vocabulary to preschool children with hearing loss. Exceptional Children, 83(1), 26-41.

Smith, Lauren. (2015). Music: A tool for expressive and receptive vocabulary for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. All Graduate Plan B and other Reports. 503.

Image Courtesy of Love image created by Teksomolika –

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2 thoughts on “Strategies to Teach Vocabulary

  1. Good day! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a group of volunteers and starting a new initiative
    in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us valuable information to work on. You have done a
    outstanding job!

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