Use your words!

Girl pointing to words on a blackboard
My brother recently e-mailed me a story about his six-year-old daughter:
Claire: Daddy, I really regret going on our trip to Canada and Niagara Falls.
Daddy: Claire, you’re too young to have regrets, but why do you regret it?
Claire: Because on Webkins, if I don’t work on my garden every day, it gets too many weeds and the plants die.

This story got me thinking about the magnificence of vocabulary.

Letters flying out of a bookI’ve always regretted that I don’t have a stronger vocabulary, even though I have always loved words. I distinctly remember learning the word ominous in fourth grade and then later that very same night both reading it in the newspaper and hearing my dad use it at the dinner table. It felt like someone had given me a secret key. This word was everywhere!

I became fascinated with learning new words. As a freshman, I had a crush on a senior, and I would type notes to him during my typing class. I didn’t have much to say to him, so I would look up words in the dictionary and put their definitions in the note. (Let’s just say, if it isn’t obvious, it would be many years before I had my first boyfriend.)

Parents and adults often underestimate how much a child is learning when words are spoken often and in context. One of my favorite words to use when I work with small children is the word imperative. “It is imperative that you follow these directions; otherwise, the game won’t work.” My friend Sarah told me a story about her husband tickling her daughter and the three-year-old saying, “Mommy, I need you to intervene on my behalf!”

They get it. Children are brilliant, spongy creatures.

They’re constantly listening and learning and trying to make sense of the world. Correctly using words in context is an excellent and natural teaching tool.

Notice I said correctly. My friend Mary, another aspiring wordsmith, kept using the word impale in conversation. She believed the definition to be related to nausea until one day someone said, “Impale means to pierce someone, like knights with swords and lances and that kind of thing.” (We won’t blame her parents for that.)

Encouraging a rich vocabulary allows for a more satisfying reading experience for children.

Sometimes children will get the gist of what’s being written but reading is so much more entertaining and meaningful if they have a reference point for all of the words. So start using those challenging words with your children. Don’t feel like you have to resort to yum yum. Go ahead and use the word delectable. You’ll be surprised at how quickly they’ll pick it up and start using it themselves.

Besides, your child just might come across a sentence one day that reads, “I regret to inform you of this ominous news, but it is imperative that you act quickly: Your husband has impaled himself on a skewer from the delectable shish-ka-bobs he was grilling and now needs you to intervene on his behalf.”

Sure, it isn’t likely, but you never know. So use your words!


  1. Kristen says

    Another great post, TJ! My mom taught me the delight of a varied vocabulary from an early age. I find poetry to be a fun and fantastic way to introduce unusual words into my daughter’s vocabulary. That and anything by Roald Dahl!

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. Ronda says

    I loved your excellent idea to not “dumby down” vocabulary too much for kids. Next time I’m eating with granddaughter Maddy, I’ll remember your suggestion of using words such as “delectable” vs. “yum yum.” Very insightful.

  3. Hans says

    Children do have brilliant, spongy minds. And you’re spot on that this affords parents the opportunity to instill sophisticated communication skills at an early age; one only needs to speak to children like they are intelligent [little] adults!

  4. Justin Porter says

    Once again TJ you have written and insightful piece here. I am passing this onto all my friends with kids so they can get the GOOD word!

  5. jennifer says

    Good post. We’ve never used baby-talk with our children, and so friends and family and people at church have always been amused hearing our small children speak like mini-adults. Just earlier today, I taught my 5-year-old and 4-year-old the words “famished” and “parched” and their meanings. Then when my husband came home for lunch, they said, “Daddy, what’s for lunch? We’re famished and parched.”

    I LOVE that you know a little girl who asked her mother to intervene. I think that will be the next word we teach.

  6. Jessie says

    It’s so funny, I actually just did a big training with my students where I stressed exactly what you were talking about in your blog. One example I used was that I was walking down the street in front of a dad and a three year old, and she asked if a store we passed was closed, and the dad said, “yes, it’s being renovated. That’s means it’s getting fixed up.” Maybe “renovated” will pop up in that 3 year old’s vocabulary as a result! The sad thing is the kids we work with (in low-income neighborhoods) do not have these giant vocabularies, I try to have conversations with my students about realizing when kids are using the big words and encouraging them, and there is generally silence in the room – the kids just aren’t exposed to the words in their lives, so aren’t using them. My organization (Jumpstart) is working hard to change that!

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