Vocabulary Builder: Strategies to improve use of specific words

Vocabulary Builder: Strategies to improve use of specific words

As children develop language, they may rely on general words like “it” “there” and “thing”.   The English language has heaps of these words.  Designed for efficiency, they can be anything but efficient if they are over-used or used out-of-context.  Read more to find out what general words are, how to know if your child is using them too  much and what you can do to improve their vocabulary.

The English language has heaps of general, all-purpose terms such as:

  • it (“It is in the bedroom”)
  • there (“Put my jumper over there”)
  • that (“That one, please”)
  • this (“This one is my favourite”)
  • here (“Can you put my jumper here?”)
  • thing (“Where’s the thing?”)

The problem is that in order for these words to make sense, the listener needs a referent. A referent tells the listener what the general words are referring to.  So, if I’m having a conversation with Alice, it might go something like this:

Alice: “Hmmm.  I can’t find my jumper.  I wonder where it is?” [“it” refers to “jumper”]

Me: “I think I saw it in your bedroom” [“it” refers to “jumper”]

Alice: “I checked and it wasn’t in there.” [“it” refers to “jumper”; “there” refers to “bedroom”]

There’s no risk of confusion because the conversation provides the context.  I know the referents of the general words Alice is using.

Kids who find it hard to use specific vocabulary often rely on gestures (e.g. pointing) and context cues (e.g. presence of an item) to convey their meaning.  This is okay, but what happens when it’s impossible to use gestures or context cues? Sometimes, kids leave out the gestures and context cues altogether.  Imagine trying to follow the instruction “Can you put it here?” with your back to the speaker.

This leads to communication breakdown, confusion and frustration!

How can you help:

The best way to help is to improve vocabulary comprehension and use.  Speech therapy will help with activities specifically designed to address vocabulary.  However, you can practise at home, too! Here’s how:

  1. Notice when your child uses general words. What words are they using?
  2. Model, model, model
    • If they use “it”, “that” or “thing” to refer to nouns – model language related to nouns in their environment.
    • If they use “there” or “here” – model location words/prepositions (e.g. in, on, under, between, below, next to, above, nearby)
  3. Create space for a communication breakdown in natural interactions.  If your child uses a general word, say “I don’t understand”, “Tell me more about …” or “What do you mean?”.
  4. Have a bit of time on your hands? Barrier games are a lovely way to encourage specific language.  In a barrier game, each person has the same materials (e.g. paper/texters, playdough, Lego) but they are visually blocked by a barrier.  The goal is to produce the same “product” (e.g. drawing, sculpture or Lego creation) but just using language (no pointing, gestures or peeking allowed!)  Barriers games are great for working on nouns and location words, as well as following and giving complex instructions.
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