- Children typically speak their first word somewhere around 12 months. Some children, however, take up to 16 months to utter that long-awaited first word and this is still considered to be within the range of typical.
- At 18 months, children typically use around 50 (but we don't worry too much unless they have fewer than 10-20).
- At 24 months, children usually have an expressive vocabulary of 200-300 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have fewer than 50).
- At 3 years, children can have anywhere from 500-1,100 words in their vocabulary.
- By 5-7 years, children have an expressive vocabulary of 3000-5000 words.
And it's even more important to note that at least one study (Hart and Risley, 2006) found that the significant variability in children's vocabulary at the age of three was strongly related to the amount of talking parents did with their children. Specifically, they found that parents who used 'conversational' speech with their children (talking about what they did, what they saw and what they thought about what they did and what they saw-- basically just making conversation with their children on a regular and on-going basis) had children with significantly higher vocabularies and IQs at age three than children whose parents used mainly directive speech (get this, do that, come over here). The differences in language and IQ remained at age nine as well.
Looking for ways to keep your child's vocabulary growing? Here are a few.
- At the toddler age, use simple language to talk about what you and your child are seeing and doing. Narrate your day and engage your child in simple back and forth conversations about what is happening.
- Think about taking pictures and using them to extend and repeat the conversation about events that have happened, even with children as young as 24 months. Talking about things that have already happened helps your child learn to talk about decontextualized events (things that are not right in front of him)-- a task that requires a more precise and higher-level vocabulary.
- As your child develops language in the preschool and elementary years, continue to engage him in conversations about things that have happened in your lives. When you do so:
- Use active listening to show your child you are listening; create opportunities for your child to comment and add to your thoughts. Create pockets of time in which you really talk with your child.
- Restate what your child says, using slightly more advanced, new vocabulary. For example, if he says, "Did you see that house by the water? It was big!" respond by saying, "I did- the cabin next to the creek was gigantic!"
- As your child talks, ask "how" and "why" questions to help him extend and analyze his thoughts. Wonder out loud, for example, how the cabin was build or why the family chose to build it on the creek. Doing so allows your child to use new vocabulary to talk about abstract thoughts, rather than simply talking about the concrete objects that are right in front of him (Ruston & Schwanenflugel, 2010).
Paul, Rhea. (2007). Language Disorders from Infancy Through Adolescence. Mosby, Inc: Canada.
Risley, T. R & Hart, B. (2006). Promoting early language development. In N. F. Watt, C. Ayoub, R. H. Bradley, J. E. Puma & W. A. LeBoeuf (Eds.), The crisis in youth mental health: Critical issues and effective programs, Volume 4, Early intervention programs and policies (pp. 83-88). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Ruston, H.,& Schwanenflugel, P. (2010). Effects of a Conversation Intervention on the Expressive Vocabulary Development of Prekindergarten Children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools (41): 303-313.