Helping children learn new words: Early years

Why is it important to help children learn new words?

Children need to know lots of different words in order to be able to talk in sentences and tell stories. Knowing lots of words also helps children when they learn to read and write, and it helps them to do better at school.

How many words should children know at different ages?  

In typical development: 

  • Children say their first words about the age of one (although they understand some words for some time before this). 
  • By about 18 months, children might use about 20 words, but they’ll understand more. 
  • By two years old, most children can say 50 words and understand between 200 and 500. 
  • By three years old, most children can say about 300 words. 
  • By the time a child reaches five years old, they’ll know and use as many as 2,500 words. 

How can I help children in my setting to learn new words?  

  • Watch and notice what the child is looking at, then tell them its name (e.g. ‘It’s a tractor!’). This works better than asking the child what things are called. 
  • Remember, children learn words best from other people. Play and chat with the child often to help them learn new words. 
  • Use gesture or actions to teach new words. This can give children an extra clue about the word’s meaning. For example, if you are talking about a ‘huge’ elephant you could stretch your arms really wide. 
  • Share books often.  
  • Give the child choices. So, rather than saying “Would you like a snack?” ask them “Do you want raisins or cucumber?” 
  • Repetition is really important. Children need to hear a new word lots of times before they learn it properly, so keep saying the word you want them to learn! 
  • You can tell even young children the meaning of words. Do this by making links with words they know already (e.g. “It’s a puppy! A puppy is an animal. A puppy is a baby dog”). There are different types of words and children need to learn them all. They need doing words (e.g. walking, swimming, driving), describing words (big, heavy, red), and words that can be used to name things.  
  • Add one word to what the child says. Remember to say the grammatical parts of sentences like ‘a’ and ‘ing’ as this helps the child know where the words go in sentences. For example, if the child says, ‘Cat’, you could say, ‘Yes, a fluffy cat’ or ‘The cat’s hiding’. 

I don’t think a child in my setting 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 babies and children develop skills. Choose the age of the child and then answer the questions. At the end, we will direct you to some helpful advice and resources. 

We also have a free speech and language advice line, which is a confidential phone call with an experienced speech and language therapist. During the 30-minute call, you will be given the opportunity to talk through your concerns and questions regarding your child’s development. You can book your phone call here.