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Vocabulary and word finding

Why it’s important

Vocabulary refers to the words a child can understand (receptive vocabulary) or express (expressive vocabulary). If a child has a limited vocabulary, they may have difficulties understanding what’s being said to them, or have problems expressing themselves.

How children develop their vocabulary

Young children learn vocabulary directly relevant to their life experience and environment. This starts with social greetings, for example, ‘bye-bye’ and mostly nouns, for example, labels for items or significant people in their life. Gradually, they learn labels for actions (verbs) or events, and begin to understand and use describing words (adjectives) to express how they feel, for example, ‘tired’ ‘hungry’ or ‘thirsty’. Young children will also learn that vocabulary has a grammatical role to play in a sentence, for example, how to use prepositions or pronouns.

Children continue to develop their vocabulary skills throughout primary school to:

  • use curriculum key words
  • give clear descriptions
  • gain a greater understanding of the relationships between words.

By the end of primary school, most children have developed effective strategies to learn, store and recall new words.

Secondary school and college students develop more advanced skills to meet the vocabulary demands of the curriculum.  This allows them to use subject-specific vocabulary to communicate effectively within their subject classes, written work and with their peers.

Word finding

This is the ability to retrieve words from your mental ‘dictionary’.  Adults and children experience word finding difficulties when they know a word – ‘it’s on the ‘tip of my tongue’.

Word retrieval strategies rely on the child/student’s ability to store both semantic features (meanings) and phonological features (speech sounds) of words. Children and young people will always benefit from playing vocabulary type games both at home and in school. Those who need lots of repetition will benefit from exposure to topic related vocabulary both at the beginning and end of the school term.

Strategies and tips to help develop vocabulary development

For early years and young children

Follow the child’s lead and tell them the words for objects or experiences they’re interested in.

Describe new words

When learning new words, describe them whilst you look at or experience them. Talk about what you do with the object, as well as what it looks like (shape, colour, size, etc.), feels like, smells like.

Give opportunities to hear new words

Give the child opportunity to see what it refers to in a range of different situations before you assume they have fully understood the word.

Use visual cues

These could include objects, pictures, demonstrations and natural gestures to support understanding whenever possible.

Teach new words in their categories

For example, if the child’s learning about parts of the body, talk about hands being part of your body and hands being at the end of your arm. Give opportunities for sorting and categorising.

Ask a forced question

This is helpful if the child can not answer your question. For example, instead of ‘what do you want for your snack?’, ask ‘do you want an apple or grapes?’ Pick up the options and show when you say the word to reinforce the meaning.

Give a sound or meaning cue

For example, saying ‘it’s an animal, it barks, and wags its tail’ may help a child with word-finding difficulties to recall the word.

Use familiar vocabulary

Particularly when giving instructions and explanations. Where possible try to be consistent, for example, use the same name for each room in the nursery, or for an item (the ‘sofa’ is always the sofa, not the settee or the couch or the chair).

For school aged children

Parents and teachers should:

  • talk to their child’s school/discuss with parents about the topics they ‘ll/their child will cover throughout the term
  • identify key words for a given topic before being taught in the classroom (by the class teacher, LSA and with the child if appropriate). We recommend introducing a manageable amount of words (3 to 5 per topic)
  • recap key words for a given topic following the subject area taught in the classroom
  • find pictures or objects that represent the topic vocabulary where possible
  • introduce the key words (with pictures/objects) to the child before they’re taught in the classroom
  • talk about each word in turn (during different sessions if possible).

Discuss the semantic features (the meaning of the word) including:

  • category (group), for example, ‘it’s a type of…’
  • function (use) for example, ‘it’s used for…’
  • location, for example, ‘it’s found…’
  • parts/special features for example,’it has…’
  • attributes for example, shape, size, colour
  • texture for example, ‘it feels…’
  • experience (have you heard this word before? If so when? What do you know about it?).

Discuss the phonological features (the sounds of words) including:

  • long/short word
  • first sound
  • syllables in the word (claps)
  • rhymes with (whole word or part of the word).

For specific strategies for years 5 to 6 at school, see the age milestone below.

What to expect at each age milestone

Choose the age range below to find out how children develop their vocabulary. You’ll also find suggested activities that will help your child/a child you’re teaching/caring for to develop their skills.


What to expect

Babies will start to babble, for example, ‘bababa’, ‘mamama’, ‘dadada’. Your baby will understand and say their first words at about 1 year.

Activities to help develop their skills

Talk to the baby and/or make babble sounds to them. Stop and give them time to make sounds back to you.

Use toys and games to encourage your child to make noises, for example, pop-up toys, wind-up toys. Wait until the child makes a sound then reward them with the toy and lots of praise.

Make appropriate noises when playing with toy animals, cars and trains. Encourage the child to join in and copy you, for example, ‘bang’ ‘broom broom’ ‘moo.’



What to expect

By 2 years, your child should have a vocabulary of more than 50 words. Most of these words will be nouns but your child will have also a small vocabulary of verbs for example, sleeping, walking. The pronunciation of these words may not yet be clear.

Children can understand a wider range of nouns and verbs than they can say.  They’ll start to use personal pronouns, for example, ‘I’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’.

Activities to help develop their skills

Label your child’s world

If your child points to an object, label it and then use the word in a short, simple sentence for example,  ‘ball’, ‘it’s a red ball’, ‘it’s a big ball’.

Share books with the child

Follow their lead, enjoy simple stories, label pictures and be prepared for lots of repetition.

Play ‘more’ games with the baby

Encouraging the child to learn words, for example, carry out an activity and wait for the child to say ‘more’ or ‘again’ before repeating the activity. Use activities such as blowing bubbles, building and knocking down towers, tickling games and wind-up toys.


Play simple naming games. Get together a selection of familiar objects – put them in a bag and encourage your child to name the objects as they come out of the bag. Alternatively, make a posting box from an old cereal packet and encourage naming as objects are posted into the box.


What to expect

Between 2 and 3 years, children’s vocabulary grows considerably and can be up to 1,000 words.

Children will understand and use more verbs, and will begin to understand prepositions, for example, ‘in’/’on’ and pronouns, for example, ‘he’/’she’, ‘you’/’your’ and ‘we’.

Use a range of words e.g. nouns (objects), verbs (action words), adjectives (describing words).

Activities to help develop their skills

Add words

If the child uses a word, add another word to it, for example, child: ‘car’, adult: ‘fast car’ (but do not expect your child to use the extra word you added).

Giving verbal choices

For example, adult: ‘do you want teddy or dolly?’

Encourage your child to complete a sentence

For example:

Adult: ‘here’s a big teddy and here’s a …”

Child: ‘little teddy.’




What to expect

Children use joining words such as ‘and’ and ‘because’ and will ask lots of questions, for example, ‘why?’ what? where?

They’ll also start to use adjectives of colour and size, further prepositions for example ‘under’ and ‘next to’ and more pronouns, for example, ‘his/hers’, ‘they/theirs’, ‘him/her’, ‘ours.’

Activities to help develop their skills

Children learn most words best through spontaneous use during everyday activities. Help your child by using short simple sentences.

Lots of repetition

Your child needs to hear a word many times and in many different situations before they fully understand its meaning.



What to expect


  • know words can be put into groups and can give common examples for example, animals: ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘horse’
  • understand a range of related words to describe concepts, for example, ‘soon’, ‘early’ and ‘late’, ‘soft’, ‘hard’ and ‘smooth’
  • can clap the correct number of syllables in words
  • can find words beginning with the same sound in listening activities, for example, ask them ‘can you find me something that starts with a ‘t’?’

Activities to help develop their skills

Sorting by category

This will help the child to learn and remember words in an organised way. Encourage them to sort items into groups, for example, ‘transport’, ‘animals.’ Subdivide into further groups, for example, transport for ‘road’/’water’/’air’ and animals that can ‘fly’/’run’/’swim.’ Use pictures to sort then words.

Sorting words into opposites

Download our opposites activity sheet .

Have a selection of picture cards or written word cards that make up a pair of opposites, for example card 1 = hot, card 2 = cold.  Play a pairs game with the child.  When they turn over a card can they predict what the opposite would be?  Can they recognise the opposite when they do turn it over?

Early concepts

Put items in a feely bag and ask the child to sort, for example, soft and hard items

Syllable clapping

Use a syllable board to help clap out longer words.

Phonic time

Spread out a selection of picture cards. Can the child find all the pictures that begin with a certain sound?

Use the same pictures from the ‘sorting’ activity without the written word displayed.


What to expect

Children use a range of vocabulary including adjectives and adverbs. They will:

  • compare words, the way they look, sound or mean, for example, ‘sea’ at the beach, and you ‘see’ with your eyes
  • talk about objects, describing their size, shape, category and function
  • use newly learnt words in a specific and appropriate way, for example, ‘Dad, you know when you have lots of lions together it is called a pride of lions?’

Activities to help develop their skills

Multiple meanings

Think about words which sound the same but have different meanings, for example, ‘pair/pear’, ‘knight/night’ or multiple meanings, for example, ‘bat’, ‘bank’. Ask students to draw pictures to illustrate the different meanings.

Guess the object

Have a selection of object pictures. Players take turns to take a picture without showing it to the other players. They describe the object in the picture. The others have to guess what the object is from the description, for example, ‘it’s woolly and has four legs.’

Finding related items (things that go together)

For example, money and purse. Find pictures of things that go together and play a pairs game. At the end of the game see if the child can think of other items that might go with the pair.

Odd one out

Give the child cards showing four pictures. They must find the picture that does not fit with the others and say why, for example, ‘cow’, ‘cheese’, ‘pig’ and ‘horse.’ You can gradually make this more difficult by making the categories closer together, for example, ‘bike’, ‘car’, ‘lorry’, ‘bus’ and then use words instead of pictures. Can the child think of another item that fits the category?



What to expect

Children can:

  • use a range of words related to time and measurement, for example, century, calendar and breadth
  • use a wide range of verbs to express their thoughts, or cause and effect, for example, ‘I wonder what she’s thinking’, or ‘If we run we should get there on time but we might arrive late’
  • join in discussions about an activity using topic vocabulary, for example, “I saw some chicken eggs hatching in the incubator on the farm last Friday’
  • begin to extend their understanding and use of vocabulary linked to expressing emotion.

Activities to help develop their skills

Can you think of…?

Take it in turns to think of all the words which fit a particular category, for example things with legs, things that are stripy/round, things found in a circus.

Think of objects which satisfy 2 conditions, for example, white and cold = snow; round and flat = plate, saucer;  wet and hot = coffee, tea.

Play this using only the phrase ‘I went shopping and I bought…’ You can only ‘buy’ something from the chosen category.

I give you this gift

Pass an object round a circle saying the phrase ‘I give you this gift because…’ The child then has to think of one thing about the object, for example, it’s red, the wheels move round, it’s really fast.

Similarity snap

Spread out a selection of pictures or say several words. The child must shout ‘snap’ if they think that 2 of the words connect in some way. Can they explain how they connect? If the reason is logical they can have a point.



What to expect

Children can:

  • make choices from a varied vocabulary for example, ‘leap’ instead of ‘jump’, ‘terrified’ instead of ‘frightened’
  • use sophisticated words but the meaning might not always be accurate, for example, ‘my bedroom was meticulous’
  • understand that words can have 2 meanings and use them appropriately but can not always explain how they link, for example, ‘hard’ (rigid object and tough person)
  • extend understanding and use of vocabulary linked to expressing emotion.

Activities to help develop their skills

Chain game

Go round in a circle linking each word to the last one, for example:

Bread – butter – yellow – sun – hot – cold – ice – fridge – kitchen

Make sure that the child adds a word closely linked with previous one in the chain.

Changing words in paragraph

If the student  over-uses one adjective, such as ‘nice’ or ‘good’, underline these words in a paragraph and ask them to think of different adjectives.

For example:

“The girl was nice. She had nice long hair” becomes “The girl was pretty. She had beautiful long hair…”

Emphasise that it’s a good editing technique so that you do not disrupt the flow when students write.

Multiple meaning words

Download our multiple meaning words .

Lay out cards with multiple meanings, for example, ‘pound’, ‘kind’, ‘blue.’ When the child picks a pair can they give 2 explanations?

Multiple meanings word list

Encourage children to describe emotions of themselves and others and ask them to share experiences which resulted in specific emotions.

Strategies for teachers

You should help the child to:

  • regularly recap, check and reinforce key words at the beginning of each lesson, at the end of the topic and prior to a test
  • review key words by keeping them in view within the classroom, throughout the topic, for example, a special ‘key word’ zone on the white board
  • highlight vocabulary they have not understood
  • use and update a word bank or vocabulary book (with adult support)
  • learn new vocabulary, for example outside the classroom, outdoors or at home, if appropriate
  • link any new vocabulary with known vocabulary.

Abstract vocabulary

This often needs a more contextual approach supported by formal teaching. Everyday situations should reinforce and develop related vocabulary in a meaningful context.

For example, if a child comes in at playtime looking sad, use a variety of words such as ‘sad’, ‘upset’, ‘distressed’ and ‘unhappy.’ You can teach words more formally within a specific semantic category using games. For example, ‘disappointed’, ‘furious’, ‘joyful’ are all ‘emotion’ words. This helps to reinforce category names as well as the relationships between words.

You can also encourage:

  • the creation of word maps, mind maps and word trees using written words and pictures, which can be curriculum topic specific or more general school vocabulary
  • the use of dictionaries which should be readily available to help children use more independent classroom strategies.



What to expect

Young people:

  • understand some words have multiple meanings, for example, ‘hot’, ‘bright’
  • can explain the meaning of new vocabulary using a dictionary style definition, for example, describing ‘brave’ as ‘someone who shows courage, even in a dangerous situation’ rather than saying ‘they’re not scared’
  • use more interesting vocabulary when prompted, for example, ‘worried’ becomes ‘anxious’
  • may find higher level verbs hard to understand, for example, ‘estimate’, ‘research’.

Activities to help develop their skills

20 questions

This is a guessing game where one player thinks of something and the others have to ask questions until they discover the correct item, for example, ‘is it red? Can you eat it? Does it grow on a tree? Is it a fruit?’ (answer = apple).

Younger players will benefit from prompt cards suggesting different questions they can ask, for example, ‘what do you do with it? Where would you find it?’

Same / different

Think about the ways that 2 items are the same and how they’re different. Initially have objects or pictures for the child to compare, then move onto words.

Animal Type Lives Skin Colour Pattern
Tiger Wild Jungle Fur Orange Stripey
Dog Pet Kennel Fur Many Usually all one colour, but may be patchy or spotty

You can also do the same / different activity above using a Venn diagram with overlapping circles to show the same characteristics.


These are words which have a similar meaning. For example:

Cross: mad, angry, furious

Shout: yell, scream

Small: little, tiny, minute, weeny

Have a selection of words for the child to sort by meaning or give the child a word and see how many synonyms they can think of.




What to expect

Young people will:

  • still feel challenged by some instruction words, for example, modify, generate, consider
  • use patterns in words (affixes), for example, –able, -esque, un-, dis- to aid understanding
  • use ‘academic words’ when prompted in all formal tasks, for example, ‘condensation’ instead of ‘dripping’
  • confidently explain the meaning of subject words and words with multiple meanings
  • continue to learn vocabulary for specific topics or specialisms.

Activities to help develop their skills

Similar meanings

Give the student an adjective – they must think of one with a similar meaning.  This will help them to think of an alternative word if they can not retrieve a particular word in conversation, for example, ‘pretty’, ‘attractive’, ‘nice’, ‘good looking.’

Affix game 

Write words with one or more affixes onto large pieces of paper.  The student can then cut the affixes off and find out whether the remaining word is a real word.  Can they work out the meaning of the affix?  For example, disagree – agree.  What does ‘dis’ mean? Can they think of other words beginning with ‘dis’, for example, disapprove, disadvantage.

Academic vs. general vocab pairs

Play a pairs or snap game using academic vocabulary and the corresponding general vocabulary terms, for example, ‘vocabulary’ vs. ‘words’, ‘produce’ vs. ‘make’, ‘establish’ vs. ‘set up’.


Students must think of possible words from clues. There are lots of curriculum based crosswords on the internet.


Give students a list of keywords related to a topic. Ask them to write down 5. Start to give definitions of the words. The students tick off any words they have matching your definition. The first student to tick off all their words wins. You can also ask the students to give the definitions.

Who wants to be a millionaire?

Ask students a question about the meaning of a word and give 4 possible answers. If they select the correct answer they progress on to the next question. This game takes a while to set up – see online for topic-based versions written by other teachers.

Suffix, prefix and root word mix up

Download our suffix, prefix and root word mix up activity sheet.