Importance of vocabulary in the school-aged years

The size of a child’s vocabulary has been linked to overall school achievement both socially and academically. SPD speech therapists share tips on how parents can help their child expand [...]

The size of a child’s vocabulary has been linked to overall school achievement both socially and academically. We use our vocabulary to understand others, express ourselves, and learn in different situations.  

With a wider vocabulary, children can make connection between what they have heard, read, and know, giving them access to new information and helping them to think and learn about the world. SPD speech therapists Laura Tan and Lye Yue Ning share tips on how parents can help their child expand on their vocabulary. 

Tips for expanding vocabulary 

Children learn from what they hear, and they pick up most words indirectly through everyday experiences. Daily interactions and multiple exposures to new words are important teaching opportunities. Here are some ways that you can do it. 

For instance, if you have just came across the word ” frustrated ” in a book you have read together, you could incorporate the new word in the following ways. 

1. Through meaningful contexts 

Learning moments can be incorporated as you go about your day together. This will help them learn and use the new words across different environments. 

Parent: “Ugh this traffic is frustratingly slow! We are hardly moving!” 

2. Through things or events of interest

When your child is engaged in activities or events that they are interested in, they are likely to pay more attention and learn a new word. Follow your child’s lead and talk about what you are doing together. 

Child: “I’ve tried so many times, but my castle keeps falling down!” 

Parent: “That is frustrating! Let’s see how we can do it better.” 

3. Through interaction 

Introduce the new word when talking with your child. This will help them to relate the new word to their own experiences and not just memorise the word. 

Parent: “Are you having difficulties opening the bottle? You look frustrated. Do you need help?” 

4. Through multi-modality

Use different modes of activities. Besides having conversations, you can read books together, sing songs, watch TV and many more. This creates quality exposure through different senses. 

For example, when watching a soccer game on TV, you could say: “Gosh, it must be so frustrating to have missed that shot!” 

A mother watching TV with her daughter.
Photo credit: Shutterstock 

Choices matter 

1. Selecting words to teach 

To select a good word to teach, make sure that the word fits one or both of the criteria below. 

a) High frequency words 

Will this word be useful in more than one context (e.g., conversation, academics, or reading)? Will it provide your child with a more specific way of expressing themselves? If yes, then this is a high frequency word. 

b) Words with multiple meanings  

Does this word have more than one meaning in different contexts? This will be important for your child’s comprehension skills. 

For example: 
You are reading a book with your child and came across these three unfamiliar words: 
Orange, Measure, Economics 
“Measure” would be the best word to focus on as it is useful in more than one context (e.g., at home, in math or science class etc.) and has more than one meaning in different contexts: 
Let’s measure the table. 
• These measures are in place to improve road safety. 
“Orange” is considered basic vocabulary and rarely requires multiple exposure, while “economics” is a low frequency word and context-specific vocabulary. 

2. Selecting the right books 

Use the P.I.C.K method to help you choose a book suitable for your child’s reading level. 

A father reading a book with his daughter
Photo credit: Freepik 

Purpose: Why does your child want to read? Is it for leisure or to learn something new? 

Interest: Does the book interest your child? Do these together to determine their interest level: 

  • Look at the front cover 
  • Read summary on back cover 
  • Flip through the pictures 
  • Read chapter titles 

Comprehension: Can your child understand what this book is about? 

Know the words: Can your child read most of the words? (Refer to the 5 Fingers Rule) 

5 Fingers Rule 
Do a quick check to see if the words in a book are too difficult by counting the number of unknown words in a page. 
0 – 1 unknown words = Too easy 
2 – 3 unknown words = Just right 
4 – 5 unknown words = Difficult 

Tools to build vocabulary 

There are many strategies to help your child build vocabulary and deepen their understanding of words related to the target word. Here, we are going to focus on two visual organisers: Word Map and Word Ladder. 

1. Word Map 

It is an organiser that shares a similar concept as a mind map to show the categories, characteristics and examples that are related to the target word. 

An illustration of a word map. Using the word "frustrated" as an example and placed in the middle of the map, the diagram further branches out into three sections.  The text in the image shows the characteristics such as "clenched fist", "cry", "shout" and "slam the door". Examples such as "Mum asking me to go to bed when I still want to play", "unable to find my favourite toy", and "cannot solve a Math problem". Antonyms such as "contented", "encouraged" and "fulfilled".

Why use it? 

By drawing the connections and relationships between the categories, characteristics and examples to the target words, children can broaden their knowledge on a concept. This will allow them to grow, not just in breadth, but in depth as well, aiding them in their vocabulary development. 

How to create a word map: 

1. Select a target word (e.g., frustrated) 

2. Generate a child friendly definition 

3. Identify words related to target word. Possible areas to consider: 

  • Categories 
  • Characteristics 
  • Examples/Situations 
  • Synonyms (similar meaning) 
  • Antonyms (opposite meaning) 
  • Who does it 

2. Word Ladder 

It is a visual organiser that arranges words on a scale based on their meaning. 

An illustration of a word ladder. Using the word "frustrated" as an example, the diagram shows the escalation of anger level, starting from "calm" to "frustrated", "angry" and "furious".

Why use it? 

By thinking about the intensity or gradient of the word meanings, it increases the child’s exposure to different vocabulary and helps them discriminate between the differences in meaning. It also enhances their vocabulary by allowing them to be more precise in the use of words. 

How to create a word ladder? 

1. Identify the new word 

2. Talk about the meaning of the word 

3. Come up with an antonym and put both words on each end of the scale 

4. Discuss what other words may sit between/on top/ below these two words 

5. Some concepts to consider for scale: 

  • Quality (e.g., good/bad, high/low) 
  • Speed (e.g., fast/slow) 
  • Intensity (e.g., strong/weak) 
  • Temperature (e.g., freeze/boil) 

Most importantly, enjoy the process and have fun learning together! 


ABC Reading eggs. (2023). How to Find “Just Right” Books for Your Child with the Five Finger Rule. Retrieved from ABC Readingeggs: 

Fielding, L., & Roller, C. (1992). Making Difficult Books Accessible and Easy Book Acceptable. The Reading Teacher, 45(9), 678-685. Retrieved from 

Just Right Reads. (2018). What are Just Right Reads? Retrieved from Just Right Reads: 

Cover photo credit: Shutterstock