Vocabulary Skills: Just how important is Expressive Language to school success?

vocabulary, language, expressive language

One of the most powerful predictors of a child’s ability to learn to read and succeed in school is vocabulary size or how many words a child is using at kindergarten entry (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Duncan, Yeung, Brooks-Gunn & Smith, 1998; Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998). Vocabulary strongly relates to reading comprehension, intelligence, and general ability.

​Do I need to worry if my friend’s children of the same age are using many words but my child has a lot less words?

From the earliest stages of language learning, children vary widely in their vocabulary size and rate of development (Fenson, Dale, Reznick, Bates, Thal & Pethick, 1994). Children vary widely in the rate at which they acquire words— some acquire new words slowly and speed up, other children start with a period of rapid word growth and continue at a steady pace.

​If children however continue to show delays in vocabulary skills than same age peers, it is important to talk to a doctor or obtain a screen from a child speech pathologist.

vocabulary, language, expressive language

​What are Vocabulary Skills? Is Vocabulary How Many Words a Child Knows or is Saying?

​Vocabulary can refer to both! Vocabulary includes both how many words a student understands when they hear or read the word (receptive vocabulary) as well as those they can produce in conversation or written work (expressive or productive vocabulary).

​Remember sometimes children can read many words but do not know the meaning of these words. The ability to say a word when reading is called word recognition vocabulary which is different to expressive language skills.

​Children with Language Difficulties often have Reduced Vocabularies – know and say as many words as seen in typical development.

​Typically developing children are generally able to work out the meanings of many words from context and everyday interactions. However, it is important to note that children with language impairments may not learn words as efficiently. Children with language difficulties may require more frequent and repeated exposure to truly learn a word. In addition, children with language impairments are less likely to learn words incidentally through book reading. These children may need the reader to highlight unknown words and explicitly explaining the meaning of many words.

The more words you know, the more you can read

​The more you read, the more words you will learn

For children starting school with a limited vocabulary, “more” reading does not necessary result in “more” vocabulary if the early vocabulary foundations are weak (Stanovich, 1986). Explicit teaching of new words if often required.

What Would a Problem with Expressive Vocabulary Look like in Children?

A child with vocabulary difficulties may show some or all of the following:

Expressive language difficulties:

  • hesitant language e.g. um, ah
  • non-specific words instead of using actual names or words e.g. ‘thing’, ‘this’
  • use of simpler words and a reduced range of words

Comprehension difficulties:

  • incorrect responses during class discussions
  • incorrect responses to comprehension questions about a written text

Reading difficulties, such as:

  • not remembering words read previously
  • difficulty choosing words in context
  • ​difficulty decoding words/ sounding out words
  • Vocabulary and emerging reading skills
vocabulary, language, expressive language

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Rowe et al (2012). The pace of vocabulary growth helps predict later vocabulary skill. Child Dev. 2012 Mar; 83(2): 508–525.

Sandra McMahon

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