3 Kinds of Vocabulary Skills
Vocabulary is critical for school (and life) success. One of the most consistent issues for children that I evaluate is the lack of vocabulary. This then effects the ability to comprehend material that the child reads, as well as the ability to understand directions and content that is being presented verbally by the teacher. It will also impact interpersonal relationships and communication because a lack of vocabulary awareness can result in serious misunderstandings.
Receptive vocabulary – represents the ability to understand a word when it is heard.
Expressive vocabulary – represents the ability to label single pictures. This requires the child to recall the appropriate word from experience and memory.
Defining vocabulary – represents the ability, verbally or in writing, to provide a definition of a single word. This requires more complex processes, which include the actual understanding of the word, and the ability to recall and use language to convey that meaning to another person. This is the most complex of the vocabulary tasks. Often when attempting to define a word, a child will provide associated words which do suggest some familiarity with the word but which do not actually define the word.
Developing receptive vocabulary – the first step in working on verbal skills is developing their receptive language and it starts mere months into a baby’s life. You can begin working on this skill with very young children (and even babies). Using any book or magazine, ask the child to point to any word that you, the adult, say. So if you see a woman, say “where is the woman?” The child points to the woman on the page. “Where is the doll?” you can say, and the child points to the doll. This will indicate whether the child is making the connection between the pictured item and the word. This task can appropriately begin with an 18 month old child, or sometimes even a bit younger. You can also ask the child to point to your ears, nose, eyes, mouth, etc. You can ask the child to point to the cat, the dog, their sibling (by name “Where’s Tommy? There he is!”) You can further test receptive language with simple tasks “Go bring me a book” or “Where is Mommy’s phone? Can you bring me my phone?” or “Sit down.” or “Get off the table.” (if your kids are anything like my grandchildren).
Developing expressive vocabulary –These tasks take the verbal skills one step further by looking at pictures or items around the house, and asking the child to name the items. The difference between pointing to a named item, and having to produce the name of the item is significant. If the child has difficulty with this skill, go back to receptive work and see if he is fluent there. This naming of objects will become a more appropriate task as the child begins to talk, and becomes more comfortable with verbalizing and producing word sounds, usually by around age 2.
Defining vocabulary – by age 5, a child can usually define very simple words. Ask “what does ____ mean? “ What you are listening for is a description based on category, function, and characteristics. So if you asked your child to define “cat,” good responses could include any combination of the following: “animal, furry, pet, has four legs, says meow, purrs, snuggles in your lap, has whiskers.” As children become more adept at defining words they will learn to prioritize which pieces of the description they give you and in what order. To help a child develop this skill you can ask him questions like “what is it?” and “what is it like?” or even “what are some examples of it?” Once a child starts to learn a new word, be sure to repeatedly use that word to help the child gain mastery. Try not to confuse a child with multiple definitions of a word when they are first learning it. Stick to one definition until it is mastered and save additional definitions for a later time.