Key Aspects of Language and Literacy, Activities for Very Young Children

Extended Vocabulary and Language Development

Children who are exposed to sophisticated vocabulary in the course of interesting conversations learn the words they will later need to recognize and understand when reading. Vocalization in the crib gives way to play with rhyming language and nonsense words. Toddlers find that the words they use in conversation and the objects they represent are depicted in books—that the picture is a symbol for the real object and that the writing represents spoken language. In addition to listening to stories, children label the objects in books, comment on the characters, and request that an adult read to them. In their third and fourth years, children use new vocabulary and grammatical constructions in their own speech. Talking to adults is children’s best source of exposure to new vocabulary and ideas.


Labeling games are just right for little ones, for example, “Where is your nose?” Verbally label objects and events in your child’s world, for example, “Nina is on the swing.” Encourage your child to label objects and events, helping him or her with vocabulary and pronunciation. Do these types of labeling games with pictures in magazines, books, etc.

During necessary routines like baths, reading, and eating, be sure to make time to talk with children. Turn off the car radio and talk while you drive together. Watch children’s TV programs together and talk about them. Instead of channel surfing, turn off the TV and use the time to talk.

As adults, we sometimes view conversation as a luxury—an extra in our busy lives. But for young children whose developing minds are striving to become literate, talk is essential—the more meaningful and substantive, the better. Set aside a regular “talk time” for adults and children, when having conversations about their lives is your main focus.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement