Recently there was a very concerning article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the decline in children’s vocabularies. The statistics quoted were staggering and based on pre-pandemic results (so we can’t blame Covid for the numbers). ‘In 2011, 576 year 5 students across the country scored full marks when it came to the vocabulary component of NAPLAN but by 2018, that figure had shrunk to 67 students receiving the top grade’.

As a long time educator and now author, I believe there are several contributing factors to this regression.

The first being that parents and adults in general just aren’t talking to children as much as they once did. We’re distracted. Babies and toddlers are like sponges. They soak up the language around them. Talking to your children frequently – directly and incidentally will help them develop verbal language skills. If you’ve ever tried to learn another language as an adult, (hello Duolingo French) you’ll know how tricky it is – but children are wired to be language receptors which is why they find it much easier to learn second and even third languages at a very young age.

Children must be read to – ideally from birth. Regular shared reading time gives babies and toddlers an opportunity to hear different words and when you’re sitting together with a picture book, to see their context. It’s important to keep reading to children even when they start reading independently. Encourage them to ask questions and explain the meaning of words that they don’t understand.

Similarly, nursery rhymes and poems help babies and toddlers develop their verbal language skills. They listen, they mimic, they feel the words rolling around on their tongue and they have fun. When I was a kindergarten teacher, I spent a lot to time teaching the children poetry – they loved reciting the words – and if you can add some actions, all the better. Poetry recitation is great for the memory too. And not just for very young children. I can recall teaching a Year 5 class Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll and The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear – both of which were huge hits.

Play word games with your children. I was recently teaching a group of students during some holidays writing classes and we started each day with word building games and vocabulary exercises. They were very popular activities.

Reading is critical to the acquisition of vocabulary. Don’t shy away from books that use more difficult words but encourage your young reader to look them up if they don’t understand them. Discuss the meaning and use them in varying contexts.

When I first began my teaching career, many books for children were noticeable slimmer than they are these days. However, they were certainly not easier. I was looking at some Paul Jennings stories recently. The text is dense and peppered with complex vocabulary. Often the books had no or very few illustrations. Compare that with the many texts that these days are designed to encourage reluctant readers which are much thicker, sparse in their words and full of illustrations. Those books are great if they encourage children to become readers; however, if children don’t venture beyond those stories to more complex language they will never expand their vocabulary and become more competent users of the English language. We need to help children to become confident readers – not only of the simplest stories available to them.

Another serious bug bear of mine is the misuse of language in public spaces – from signs to print media to the way words are mangled by people on television – some of whom are journalists and should know better. We are always modelling language and we owe it to the younger generations to get it right. I realise that everyone makes mistakes – and I am definitely included there, but we shouldn’t blithely stand by and accept lower standards.

So, the takeaways for helping develop your child’s vocabulary. Talk to them, read to them and encourage them to read too, discuss words, play word games learn rhymes and poems and put your phone or tablet down, so together you can enjoy this strange, complex and wonderful language of ours.

By Jacqueline Harvey
Educator and Author