Thursday, July 21, 2011

How Many Words Should My Child Be Saying? A Quick Guide To Vocabulary Development

Parents often wonder how many words their children should have at different ages. This seems like a simple question, but there's not always a simple answer. Vocabulary development can be relatively variable among children of the same ages.  However, there are some general guidelines:
  • 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.
It's important to note that when talking about vocabulary, we have to be careful to state what type of vocabulary we are looking at: expressive vocabulary (the number of words children use when they talk) or receptive vocabulary (which is the number of words children understand, and is almost always significantly higher than expressive vocabulary).  The above numbers represent expressive vocabulary, or the number of words children typically use at these ages.

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. 
  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


    1. Great post! I have never heard the research about how often parents talk to kids affecting not only vocabulary but IQ. It makes sense. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Yes-- so interesting, isn't it? Thanks for the comment! :)

    3. Thank you for all the great info tips and ideas!
      I wanted to ask...
      What about children growing up with two or three languages? Are there any guidelines?

      What should someone expect e.g. at 18 months of a bilingual child in terms of receptive language? and what if three languages are involved? In terms of numbers and expressive vocabulary, what i expect is something less than the above.

      I am Greek and my husband is German. We speak English with each other and we live in Germany. Our son is 18 months old and he uses 10(max. 15) words in Greek, around 8 words in German and 1 in English. He has a lot of language input in the first two languages (mostly Greek) and no input in English (e.g. books, songs, commenting...) apart from us two speaking in English.

      Thank you :)

    4. I was also wondering about the multi-lingual household and what to expect, and/or what is normal? Thank you

    5. Usually when two languages are spoken the total number of words in both languages are used. So if the child has 10 words in each language that is counted as 20 words.

    6. Great information. Thanks!

    7. I have two kids, and they are both very advanced in their speech. I always talked with them and read to them, and I think it made a big difference. My question is that I have friends who do not talk to their daughter, who just turned 2 last month, except to direct her. She says 1-3 words right now, but not clearly. I am concerned, but they are friends and I do not want to sound judgmental of their parenting style. Can this affect her greatly in the future? Should I say something? She does not get a lot of time to run, play, or learn and I am sure it is limiting her.

    8. 50-100 Words a 18 months! hmmmmm?? I think that's a mistake. I've talked to medical professionals and 5-7 words is normal by 18 months. ?????

      1. Our pediatrician said an 18 month old should be saying at least 10. Our son could say more, but he said that's typical. He also said a 2 year old should say around 50.

      2. Yep, those are screening guidelines used by physicians to find the children who are outside the range of typical. Because development is so varied, there is a big range! Below 10 at 18 months and below 50 at 24 months would suggest a potential need for intervention. But, those aren't the average number of words *most* children have at those ages. They are the outer limits of what would be considered 'typical' Hope that helps!

      3. It's clearly highly variable. My 18 month old is using over 170 words already but I know of a 16 month old who hasn't started speaking yet.

    9. It can be...or it might not be. There is a huge range of child development! Check out the First Words: Child Development at 12-18 months for a more details description of what to expect!

    10. my grandson didn't say a word until he was two and a half, but as several children in the family were also late talkers and as he clearly had a large range of receptive understanding we didn't worry. Within two months of starting to speak he had a huge range of words and his last nursery report defined his language as very advanced. Both parents are graduates - but on the maths side!!