The “Let’s focus on Vocabulary” series of blogs has come about in response to me recently screening a whole nursery and identifying that 50% of the children had vocabulary below what was expected for their age. On top of that, most of the children hadn’t been identified as having any ‘language difficulties.’

Of these 50% of children, some were very chatty and sociable and had definitely fooled me too – yet when it came to naming specific pictures, one child in particular really struggled – it wasn’t that he just hadn’t come across the pictures in the first five years of his life, he truly struggled to recall the specific vocabulary – this was evident in the errors that he made and in his responses; "I know this one, wait, it’s like a rabbit but it not. I know, camel – no." As soon as I asked “is it a crocodile, a kangaroo or or a camel?” he could tell me. He just couldn’t ‘find the word.’

Other children would say “I don’t know. I never seen that.” Or “what is it?” or (one very cute one) “what the heck is that?”

And another child who was assumed to be shy or selective mute actually was happy to tell me what she knew on a one-to-one. Unfortunately, her basic vocabulary was very delayed – which would explain her reluctance to talk. She’s five, going into Primary One (first year of school) and didn’t know what a kangaroo was.

Now you could argue that a child in a rural area of Scotland doesn’t need to know what a kangaroo is – they don’t come across them very often.

But here’s the thing; we know that children with a wide vocabulary do better at school than those who don’t.

We know that there’s a discrepancy in the breadth of vocabulary between children coming from parents who have a higher or a lower socio economic status.

We know that children who are read to have a wider vocabulary than children who don’t experience a bed-time story. So, a five year old might have come across Kanga and Roo in Winne the Poo stories. A quick google search for “Kangaroos in Children’s Story books” suggests there’s no shortage of opportunities for a child to have experienced the word “kangaroo” by the time they are five.


In the pre-school years, children’s brains are like sponges. They soak up new vocabulary when:

  • They hear words being used in the correct context. So ditch the flashcards and just talk about what you are doing as you are doing it (I’m not expecting you to fly to Australia to see a real kangaroo, but you get what I mean!)
  • They have the opportunity to hear and practise using the words.
  • They engage all the senses when learning new vocabulary (smelling and tasting the pineapple, shelling peas from their pods, pushing heavy boxes etc)
  • They talk about how the word is made up, e.g. kangaroo “ooh, that’s a long word, it’s got three claps kan- ga – roo, it starts with the same sound as Karlee, kangaroo – rhymes with poo!!
  • You use humour (toilet humour usually works – see above!) Silly rhymes work too and for maximum effect using silly rhymes and toilet humour!!

So I’ll be working through different vocabulary, starting with objects, moving on to actions, describing words, positional words and pronouns.

It’s useful to screen children’s vocabulary. Just to get a feel of their experience and their responses. Although I have used the Word Finding Vocabulary Test, you could use any picture cards. I even have a code on my speech assessment app which allows you to mark if the child repeated the word because they did not know it. So you’d be killing two birds with one stone when you assess their speech sound system.

So, if you have a child who is just starting out on their language journey, you can use this handy First Word Checklist pdf

Of if your children are already well on their way to talking, take the time to look at pictures together to see what kind of vocabulary they have - I'd start with looking at an animal book or a book with fruit and veg in it - it'll give you an insight into the breadth of their vocabulary development. Then , over the next few weeks, we'll look into how to encourage more vocabulary in a playful, exciting way - not through bloody flashcards!