You can forget your fancy schmancy literacy scheme if your children don't have spoken vocabulary. Evidence-based numeracy programme? Forget it, if the child hasn't developed the basic vocabulary around concepts. And how does a child tell you the state of their well-being, if they don't have or can't say the words to describe how they are feeling.

You'd think it would be obvious, but schools are missing the most important skill of all that underpins each of the three areas of attainment. The development of oral vocabulary. How do I know? Because I see evidence of it every day when I visit schools and nurseries. Also, I have children of my own and I can count on one finger the number of times they have been sent home with talking homework. Yet the 10 spelling words a week came home every week that they were in primary school. (BTW, if anyone can point me in the direction of the evidence behind such homework in sustaining spelling of 10 completely out of context words, please let me know!)

Here's the thing, if you want to raise attainment, you should be focusing on increasing spoken vocabulary in pre-school children. That's early intervention to you and me.

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of introducing every child to new vocabulary every single day from the moment they are born. OK, from the moment a parent entrusts you with their care. Children’s brains are like sponges in the early years and will pick words up at such a fast rate. If you want to lay the foundations for literacy skills, you have to start with spoken vocabulary. A child is exposed to spoken language a long time before she or he will come into contact with the written word.

And how can a child write a word if they’ve never used or heard it before? Learning new spoken words is much easier than written words (der!)It’s a natural process and happens in every-day contexts, especially when children are playing. Written words, on the other hand have to be taught. In time, children will learn new vocabulary by reading new words in books but the foundation stone for good reading and comprehension lies in the words that a child hears and says before they learn to read.

Teaching vocabulary needs to use different methods and needs to be constant. Every single time an adult communicates with a child, there is an opportunity to introduce a new word, at whatever level the child can cope with at that time.

So, for a child just starting to talk, the need to hear new words repetitively but only at a single word level is crucial. Don’t confuse “hearing new words repetitively” with bombarding them with a constant stream of language – they just can’t cope with it at that level.

You may be less concerned about a child with more developed language, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t boost their skills by expanding their vocabulary.

The great thing is you don’t have to plan to do this. It just happens naturally in every day interactions; Interactions that can be adapted for the needs of the child. I was in a nursery playing with a tray of ice-cubes with children, some of whom were very chatty, others who were less so. When the early talker gave me an ice-cube, I demonstrated “brr – cold” and “wet” using gesture and pointing to help. The more chatty child said “I can look through it” and I extended by saying “oh yeah, it’s translucent – that means you can nearly see all the way through.”    

A word of caution: You need to select the right words to use – I wouldn’t use the word translucent with every child, because not all children would be ready to use that word themselves. It’s important that you choose to target words that are developmentally appropriate for the child and that the child then hears those chosen words regularly, in different contexts to embed their learning. You can tell a child what a word means, but until they hear it being used in different sentences and contexts, they won’t attempt to use the new words themselves.

Encourage a child to ask “what does that mean?” It will be impossible to teach a child every single word in the dictionary and so they have got to learn to search for themselves.

I wish that I had grown up in the days of kindles as now, if my kids don’t understand a word, they can get an instant definition which then helps their understanding of a book. When I was younger, if I didn’t know a word I wouldn’t be bothered to look it up in a dictionary and so my children’s vocabulary is now better than mine – they are not afraid to ask what things mean or to look things up themselves.  

Opportunities to introduce new vocabulary:

A child hands you something as a gift (e.g. a flower they’ve picked on the way to nursery.) You could say “oh a flower – thank you!” or you could add “I love dandelions! They’ve got so many tiny petals, look!” Notice, I didn’t suggest you say “what’s that?” Children don’t learn language by answering a “what’s that?” question! If they knew, they’d have told you already (after you saying thank you for the flower, they would have said “it’s a dandelion”) If it’s unlikely that they don’t know what it is, what’s the point of asking the question in the first place?!

A child runs past you saying “look, I can run really fast” You could add “you’re faster than a cheetah – that’s the fastest animal on earth.” Or “you are so fast – super speedy.” Or you could say “you’re like an athlete, you run so fast!”

You’re all sitting down having snack. One child says “me like carrot” You could say

“I like carrot too. It’s crunchy. I peeled it. That means I took the skin off it so you could eat it.”

Now, in the video, I mention a programme called Word Aware by Stephen Parsons and Anna Brannigan. Take a look at their programme - I highly recommend it!