Researchers have shown that there is a vocabulary gap between children from professional homes and those living in poverty. A popular number thrown around is that children from wealthier homes have heard about 30 million more words than children from poor families by the age of 3 years old. Children from middle class families lie somewhere in between.

This difference in the number of words heard has been tied to later success in school. Not surprisingly, children who have heard more words perform better. Some researchers have found that children who have heard fewer words as very young children not only perform poorly on language tests, but also exhibit behavior problems. There could be a link.

This topic has grown interesting for both parents and educators around the world. What most want to learn is how to narrow the gap, but also what kinds of words make the difference in achievement. Another study showed that it doesn’t come down to a simple numbers game. Children in wealthier families were also more likely to hear positive, encouraging conversations while poorer children hear more “discouraging” conversations.

What does this mean for us parents? We need to spend time having meaningful, vocabulary rich conversations with our children. How? Here are some ideas:

Play Games that involve vocabulary. For example, make up an animal bingo game. Draw 9 squares on a piece of paper. Place a picture of an animal in each square. Then call out animal names and have your child cover the correct animal with a bean or piece of corn. You can also try playing with the sounds each animal makes such as “moo” for a cow. Many different themes can be used for this game.

Describe It. Many parents teach their children the colors of items in the house. This is a great place to start, but also try talking about textures, temperature, weight and more! For example, “How does the rock feel? Is it rough or smooth….heavy or light…does it feel cold? Let’s put it in the sun and see if it gets warm.”

Read. Reading books is a great way to increase and develop your child’s vocabulary. Read fiction and nonfiction books. According to one study, fiction actually uses a greater range of vocabulary than nonfiction. So, break out those story books! If you don’t have books on hand, storytelling is also a great option. Make up your own books and your child may enjoy coloring pictures with you.

Nell includes lots of vocabulary words throughout the games. Take the time to sit with your child and enjoy playing together. Ask your child to repeat the words with you while pointing at the pictures. You may even want to ask what your child’s favorite images are and then draw them together.

What do you do to encourage your child’s vocabulary growth? We’d love to hear from you!