Vocabulary-Building for Your Pre-K Child

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As parents, we want our children to have every opportunity for success, and Pre-K is not too early to start. A child’s vocabulary is the top indicator of whether they will be a good reader. (Trelease, J.)

Studies tell us that children in lower socioeconomic statuses have weaker language skills, and perform worse in school. These studies also tell us that gaps are established early, and influenced by language interaction in developmental years. In a nutshell, the majority of professional parents speak to their Pre-K children much more than do lower income parents. The outcomes identified in studies are not predestined based on socioeconomic status, but rather, they are based on language stimulation and vocabulary exposure.

Active building of your Pre-K child’s vocabulary and language skills will make a significant difference in their ability to communicate and comprehend in school, and as an adult. Children have an ability to retain a great deal of information – including languages and vocabulary –  at an early age.

Below are steps you can integrate into your daily routine to ensure that your child is exposed to as many words as possible. These strategies will increase your child’s vocabulary and may end up improving the vocabulary of your entire family!

Simple steps (and book recommendations) for vocabulary building:

1. Focus on introducing “rare words.” Beck, McKeown, and Kucan call out “Tier 2 Words” in their book Bringing Words to Life (which is also an outstanding resource for further exploration, including word lists). 

Tier 2 words contain multiple meanings, and are important to reading comprehension. While conversations between adults and 3-year-old children include about 9 rare words per thousand, quality children’s books have 30 rare words per thousand (Trelease, J.).

Don’t worry about a hard and fast list to follow, rather, introduce words that are used in adult language and children’s books. Talk to your child using adult words. We all learn from high-level conversations, and children are no exception. In the Hart & Risley study, most (86-98 percent) of the words in a child’s vocabulary, consisted of words also recorded in their parents’ vocabularies, so use your words!

Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse, Jon J Muth (Illustrator) is a watercolor picture book with dreamlike illustrations, supported by plenty of vivid tier 2 words. One a hot day in the city, Tessie and friends are waiting for rain. When it comes, the infectious joy of the girls spreads to their mammas. A beautiful book with a creative use of words!

2. Read to your child every day (or night), and interact while reading.  Your child may not be speaking in full sentences yet, but they are listening and absorbing information. American Academy of Pediatrics states that “Reading aloud with young children has been found to increase the richness of the vocabulary to which they are exposed.” Be less concerned about finishing the book (though your child may insist!), and focus on quality interaction.

A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na, is an excellent bedtime board book. It includes some tier 2 words, and explains all of the different ways that animals sleep. The muted watercolors are perfect for bedtime, though the book also leaves a lot of room for interaction and discussion with your child.

Whose Toes Are Those? by Jabari Asim, is a board book with sweet descriptions of a young girl. It includes “This little piggy,” creating room for interaction and play with your child. (Also see its companion book, Who’s Knees Are These?).

3. If possible, get both parents involved in your children’s literacy. Studies show that fathers’ involvement positively impacts school achievement. Visibly demonstrate that education is important, have conversations about achievement, and have reading materials in the home. All of these behaviors contribute more directly to reading achievement than does socioeconomic status. (Karther, D.)

It is important that you model reading and lifelong learning. Your child should not be the only one in your house reading books. Don’t worry about your reading ability – show your child that you like to read, and that it is a regular part of your leisure activity. This might be a new habit for you, but it is important, and worth making the adjustment in how you spend your time.

4. Add new words weekly. Grab a new stack of books from the library every week (let your child help select the books) and dig in! Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) has books, e-books, online resources, and library programming to help you get started. Don’t forget to check out a couple of books for you too – set an example, and make reading a part of your family leisure time!

LMNO Peas by Keith Baker. This is a humorous alphabet book, and includes words that define jobs people have. It contains lots and lots of tier 2 words, and is fun to read and re-read to your child. It comes in book and board book format at BPL.

Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? by Shel Silverstein, can be enjoyed with your child over and over, and includes a wealth of tier 2 words to add to your child’s knowledge base. Check out other Shel Silverstein children’s books, filled with rare words and unique humor.

5. Relate new words to known words, and teach concept-related words together (e.g., ocean words, animal, city words, transportation, etc.). This will help give words context and meaning, better becoming a part of your child’s regular vocabulary. Categorization is an effective way for kids to learn new blocks of words at once.

Home by Carson Ellis is a beautifully illustrated book about real and fantasy homes and who might inhabit those homes. The seemingly simple category of home teaches many concept-related, tier 2 words.

Bruno Munari’s Zoo is just that. Twenty one zoo animals, with tier 2 word descriptions and plenty of room for conversation and interaction with your child. Bruno Munari was an internationally acclaimed designer and children’s book creator, and this book is one of his classics.  Keep in mind – like adults – children are drawn to certain authors. Help them learn their favorite authors’ names, and explore more of their works!

6. Read informational texts as well as fiction. Informational texts are written about the natural and social world, and are developmentally interesting for young children. Informational texts also provide specialized vocabulary exposure for children.  Studies show that parents interact with their children more on both vocabulary and literacy concepts, and for longer periods of time, when reading informational texts aloud (Duke, N.).

The Illustrated Compendium of Amazing Animal Facts by Maja Säfström is an artistic book with unusual and fascinating facts about animals. The beautiful line art and matching handwritten text are unusual for an informational text – adding to the book’s charm and creativity.

One Thousand Things by Anna Kovecses, is a brightly illustrated book of, well, things. Things that are grouped in categories and labeled – and great for interaction with your child and repetitive reading. An excellent starter source for many household words, and includes some less-seen words too!

7. Be word (and sound) conscious with your child. Draw attention to, and interest in, the words around you – on the train, billboards, magazines, labels, and road signs. Have fun and play with words: alliteration, rhymes, similar sounding words, strangely spelled words, and funny or silly words. Also, reward your child with books or reading – an extra trip to the library, or ebook/audiobook downloads (to your computer, tablet, iphone, or e-reader). Librarians can help you set up your technology if you bring it in to the library.

At BPL, there are juvenile materials that contain:

Keep a steady rotation, explore, and help your child grow to love words and reading at an early age.

What About Moose? by Corey Rosen Schwartz, Rebecca J. Gomez, Keika Yamaguchi (Illustrator) is a wonderful example of a picture book that creates playful use of tier 2 words. Add to that the unpredictable rhyme schemes (concern/stern, all imperfections/ careful inspections, work zone/megaphone, advice/precise) and striking illustrations, and you have a book that children will want to read (and giggle about) over and over.

8. Reinforce new words and make it clear that you’re introducing a new word to your child. Point to the new word you are teaching, provide simple synonyms (and antonyms), and then more complex synonyms & antonyms to that new word. Use the word in multiple contexts. Create games and songs around those new words, and use the new words regularly at home. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, suggest that you introduce 10 words a week, and use them 10 times in that week. During your “10X10,” help children engage with and practice the new words, so that they understand all of their meanings and integrate them into their regular vocabulary – and your vocabulary too!

Be deliberate and create systems. Make lists of words learned, so you can maintain those words in your child’s vocabulary. This Reading Mama blog has many good suggestions and resources, including this vocabulary journal. Post the words on the refrigerator, so that other family members can use the words too. Integrate the words into your own vocabulary, and use them at the dinner table and during conversation.

Click here, for a consolidated list of the above recommended books for your child, from the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library.


American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Early Childhood. (2014, June 23). Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice. http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2014-1384

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. Bringing words to Life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.

Carey, B. (2013, September 25). Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find. Retrieved from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/september/toddler-language-gap-091213.html

Duke, Nell K. (2003). Reading To Learn from the Very Beginning: Information Books in Early Childhood. Young Children,58(2), 14-20. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200303/InformationBooks.pdf

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (2003, Spring). The Early Catastrophe. American Educator, 4-9. Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf

Karther, D. (2002). Fathers with low literacy and their young children: fathers in this study valued literacy learning. They monitored their children’s progress and participated in book reading despite low direct program involvement. The Reading Teacher, 56(2), 184+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=nysl_me_bpl_cent&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA93135160&asid=6917fae2ab2377558cc270a9684ad716

Trelease, J. (2013). The read-aloud handbook. New York: Penguin Books.


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