Effective Practice Guides

Vocabulary: Do


Try the following practices with infants and toddlers and preschool-aged children. Use as much of the child’s home language or tribal language as possible. Find out how home visitors can put these practices to work with families.

Infants and Toddlers1,2

  • Label objects and actions verbally or using sign language.
  • Prompt children to point to, verbalize, or sign the names of objects and actions.
  • Narrate your own actions while they are happening (self-talk) and narrate children’s actions while they are happening (parallel talk).
  • Use a variety of specific and descriptive words and “map” these words onto concepts that children already know.
    • For example, while serving melon at snack time, mention that this is a kind of melon called a cantaloupe, and that yesterday’s snack was a different kind of melon called a honeydew. Descriptive words for melons might include color (e.g., orange, green) and taste (e.g., sweet, juicy).
  • Sometimes pair a word you know in the child’s home language with a word in English (e.g., “Here is your pañal—your diaper.”) to show the connection between the two words.
  • Speak in complete sentences and vary the types of sentences (e.g., short, long) used throughout the day.
  • Talk about things that are not present or visible in the room (e.g., related to things in the past, present, or future, or pretend events/role-playing). For example:
    • “Yesterday, you ate all your oatmeal.”
    • “What did you see when you went to the beach with your nana?”


  • Notice where children look and then talk about what they are focusing on using interesting, rich vocabulary.
  • Introduce words that describe objects, actions, and attributes (e.g., include verbs like “gallop” and “soar” as well as adjectives like “enormous” and “miniscule”).
  • Clarify or explain new or unfamiliar words as they relate to everyday objects or actions children are familiar with.
  • Play sorting games that reinforce the idea of categories (e.g., circles in one box, squares in the other; fruit in one bowl, vegetables in the other; “All the children with curly hair, please line up to wash your hands for snack time.”
  • Reinforce categories by having children identify the item in a group that is different (e.g., bear, cat, and airplane).
  • Incorporate specific language learning into classroom transitions (e.g., direct children to the front or back of the line or next to or behind a particular child).

Home Visitors

Home visitors can support parents in identifying, adapting, and trying practices above during home visits and group socializations. Here are more ideas.

  • Encourage parents to talk to their child in the language(s) they know best. Explain that building vocabulary in the home language(s) will make it easier for their child to learn similar words and concepts in English.
  • Show how books—with or without text—may be used to expand their child’s vocabulary.
    • Books with text often include words not used in ordinary conversations. They prompt discussions about objects, events, people, and ideas that may or may not be in the child’s everyday environment.
    • As appropriate, work with parents to find sources of free or low-cost children’s books.
  • Model and affirm ways to build vocabulary and concepts through everyday conversations; for example:
    • Child, pointing to a squirrel, says, “Kitty!”
    • Mom says, “That’s a squirrel. It sure looks like a kitty. It has fur and four legs like a kitty. But it has one thing most kitties don’t have—a big, bushy tail. [Shows the shape with her hands.] Can you say ‘squirrel?' Let’s find some more squirrels.”
  • Share strategies for building vocabulary. For example:
    • Point out new words in the community:
      • “That sign says “Reserved.” “Reserved” means the space is saved for people who have a special sticker that allows them to park there.”
    • Use rhymes, songs, and riddles to play with words (e.g., “I spy with my little eye a utensil that helps us cut food. You’re right—it’s a sharp knife! We make sure to store it safely because it’s so sharp. We don’t want you to cut yourself.”).

1Allyson Dean, Sarah, LeMoine, and Maria Mayoral, ZERO TO THREE Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators (Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE, 2016), 61–62, L&L-2.

2Sally Atkins-Burnett, et.al., Measuring the Quality of Caregiver-Child Interactions with Infants and Toddlers: The Q-CCIIT Observer Certification Training User’s Guide (Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research, 2016), 56, D.6.

3California Department of Education, California Preschool Curriculum Framework Volume 1 (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education, 2010), 118–121, Vocabulary, http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/documents/psframeworkkvol1.pdf [PDF, 8.8KB].

4Robert C. Pianta, Karen M. La Paro, and Bridget K. Hamre, Classroom Assessment Scoring System Manual, Pre-K (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes, 2008), 80–81, High Language Modeling.

Topic:School Readiness

Resource Type: Article

Last Updated: June 3, 2018