Help primary-aged children learn new words

Tips for professionals: helping children aged five to eleven years to learn new words. 

Why is it important to help children learn new words?  

Children need to know lots of different words to be able to talk in sentences and tell stories. Knowing lots of words also helps children’s reading and writing as well as their learning.  

How do children learn words? 

By the age of five years, many children will have already learned lots of different words. These could include naming words (e.g. dog, car), doing words (e.g. cooking, swimming) and describing words (e.g. heavy, hot).  

Between five and eleven years, children start to learn more complicated words like ‘honesty’ or ‘escalate’. As they get older, they learn technical words like ‘thermometer’ and ‘climate’. They will also learn more words to describe their feelings, like ‘surprised’ or ‘confused’.  

Children learn new words by hearing them over and over again in different situations.  

How can I help children to learn new words?  

  • Repeating words is really important. Children need to hear a new word many times and in lots of situations before they learn and remember it.  
  • Use pictures or actions at the same time as saying the word. Hearing the word and seeing it at the same time gives children extra clues about the word’s meaning. For example, if you are talking about an ‘increasing’ size you could show something getting bigger using your hands. Use photos or videos to talk together about how something works. For example, if you are helping them understand what a ‘wind turbine’ is, look up some photos and videos of wind turbines. 
  • Add a word to what a child says. When a child has told you something, you could repeat it back and add a new word. For example, if a child says, ‘Mr Smith is cutting the grass’, you could reply, ‘Yes, he’s cutting the grass with a lawnmower.’ Then describe it, for example, ‘The lawnmower cuts and collects the grass’. Say it again next time you see a lawnmower.  
  • Read stories together. When you come across a new word in the story, ask the children, ‘Do you know what that word means?’. If they don’t, help them look for clues to work it out. For example, ‘The boy tumbled down the hill – look at the picture. What do you think tumbled means?’ You could also look up the meaning of the word together on the internet or in a dictionary.  
  • Give choices to help children use the correct word. For example, ‘Do you think it’s a cabbage or a cauliflower?’.  
  • Talk to children about what words mean. Relate new words to what they know already. For example, ‘Depth is about how deep something is. Here is a whale in the ocean, the ocean is very deep. Depth is the distance from the top to the bottom.’  
  • Include parents/carers. Share information with parents/carers about what their child is learning at school. Send home lists of words that their child is learning at school.  Encourage parents/carers to use these words at home with their child, repeating them often and providing their child with opportunities to say them.  
  • Talk to children about how words sound as well as what they mean. For example, the word ‘recycle’: 
  • begins with a ‘r’;  
  • has 3 syllables (or parts) – ‘re-cy-cle’ – you could clap it out; 
  • means ‘using things again’.   

Talk about lots of examples: ‘we recycle glass’, ‘we can recycle paper’. Find times to talk about the word in real life situations like when you’re recycling in school or junk modelling.   

I don’t think a child in my class is saying as many words as other children their age. Should I be worried? 

For a quick check of a child’s skills, you can use our Progress Checker.  Our progress checker is based on what we know about how children develop communication skills. Answer some simple questions about the child and you will be directed to some helpful advice and resources.