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Vocabulary development of bilingual children – Early Years

A child who is not at the expected standard in language at the age of five is 11 times less likely to achieve the expected level in maths at age 11 (Department for Education, 2017).

Vocabulary is one of the key building blocks in learning a new language. The more words a learner knows the more they will be able to understand what they hear and read and the better they will become at expressing what they want to when speaking or writing later on. The larger a children’s vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words they already know!

So, it is very important to think about the most appropriate ways to build a learner’s vocabulary. EAL children often do well with phonics and word reading, hence they tend to score well on tests that check the accuracy of word reading. However, they can score less well when reading comprehension is tested.

During the Early Years vocabulary extends at a rapid way of 50-70 words per week through conversation. By the time the child is five, she/he will have a vocabulary of about 14,000 words!

Easy ways to extend vocabulary

Label items

Labelling items throughout the day will help children to learn the names of objects. Once a child is using single words they will begin to try adding two words together. The practitioner can support this transition by adding a word onto single words that the child may say, for example if a child points and says “flower”, the practitioner may respond with “pretty flower.” This encourages children to start building vocabulary.

Narrate their play

It is a good idea to narrate a child’s play to encourage vocabulary. A practitioner should observe the child’s play and make comments on what they are doing or playing with. Using single words or joining two words together will enable the child to hear the words and try copying.

Tell stories using puppets

Puppets are great resources to use when developing children’s vocabulary. Puppets can be used to aid songs and stories, or to talk to the children about particular subjects such as following the golden rules. Children respond well to puppets due to the ability to use their imagination, increasing their listening and attention skills. The more attention a child is giving the puppets, the more vocabulary they will be able to take in.

Correct mistakes with care

When a child makes a mistake with vocabulary or pronunciation, it is important not to make them feel embarrassed. You should correct them in a gentle way, possibly repeating the sentence or word back to them in the correct way. You should make the child aware of how the word or sentence should sound without making them feel they have done something wrong.

Repeat repeat repeat

Repeating language is a great way for children to learn and extend their vocabulary. Adults should listen to what the child says and repeat back any key words. This helps the child to hear words spoken clearly. Repetition is vital in building an understanding of words and learning to use them in context.

Use picture books

Picture books support children in developing single words that can then develop into sentences. Practitioners should be aware of the children’s language abilities when reading a story. For much younger children the adult should attempt to tell the story using the pictures and single words as it can be difficult for the child to understand longer sentences or keep up with what is happening.

Use visual aids

Visual aids are a great tool in developing vocabulary. These aids can be used to support children’s understanding of single words. This can be used for a variety of words or phrases to aid the children’s understanding.

Adult led activities

  • Grab a ‘treasure’ box (any old box will do!) or a mystery bag and fill it with everyday items. Younger children will enjoy pulling the things out and telling you what they are. If a child is a bit older, try to see if they can guess what you’ve got from your clues… “It’s round and hard” “a ball!”.
  • Play shops – children can come into your shop and pretend to buy something. If there’s something they don’t know the name of, you can give them choices “do you want the comb or the glasses?”
  • Set up different types of settings – e.g. a hospital, an airport, a train, a garage and role play working there. There are lots of opportunities for learning new words about different situations and experiences.
  • Play hide and seek or have treasure hunts to help learn position words…”I’ll give you a clue, it’s under the cushion”. Remember to show them too, if it’s a new word.

Star method

The STAR process teaches words in a structured and specific way, it is adapted from Blachowicz and Fisher, 2010.

STAR stands for:

  • Select – the most useful vocabulary
  • Teach – the selected vocabulary in a meaningful way
  • Activate – the meaning by using the words in context
  • Review – the taught words to ensure they are retained

Useful tips

  • Sing with EAL children and recite poetry and rhymes to playfully introduce vocabulary.
  • Talk with EAL children and encourage children to talk with one another. Keep the conversation going by asking questions, making comments, and inviting children to think and share their ideas.
  • Read to EALchildren daily, taking time to go over new words. Look for books with illustrations that provide clues to word meanings.
  • Give EAL children extra time to learn the meaning and uses of new words before moving onto other words.
  • Help EAL families understand how important it is to talk with their children and share new vocabulary words. Send home suggested conversation starters based on children’s interests. Include discussion questions in family literacy packs.

Useful link