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Te whakawhānui i te puna kupu

Expanding vocabulary

Effective ways to expand children’s vocabulary (word bank) start by providing engaging experiences and creating shared interests, before kaiako add in a word or idea. Excursions, visitors, new songs, games, activities, and books are all examples of great conversation starters.

In expanding children's vocabulary, kaiako consider how they can support children moving through language steps. For example, when tamariki are starting to combine words, it is important that their word bank of verbs/actions grows. These words easily combine with other words to make two-word phrases like "Roll ball" or "Mummy look".

Another example, is a kaiako using abstract and technical words like 'harvesting', 'compostable', and 'perennial plants' during gardening to expand the vocabulary and thinking of older tamariki.

A kaiako talks with two tamariki while playing with bowls and sand.

Use specific vocabulary

  • Use specific words, not general terms. For example, a child is much more likely to respond appropriately if you tell them, “Put your cup on the bench”, rather than “Put it over there”.
  • When appropriate, use a variety of words for the same thing (synonyms).
  • Avoid asking a child to repeat words after you.

When you observe children developing an interest area, you can plan to add language that expands their bank of specific words.

Creating word webs

A word web strategy of placing a topic in the centre and identifying a range of related ideas, can develop your intentional practice of vocabulary expansion. Add a variety of words such as names, actions, descriptors, question words, words for feelings, and location words. The following example shows a word web of different types of words you could use to talk with children interested in drawing.

Word web on drawing

Word web on art with an art image in the middle and word examples around the outside.

 Words in word web example on drawing

  • Words that describe: ātaahua/beautiful, striped, crumpled, wavy, smudge, jagged, kōwhai/yellow
  • Action words: helping, look, draw, copy, imagine, tuhituhi/writing, sitting, rub, outline, shadow
  • Words for feelings: proud, puzzled, disappointed, angry, harikoa/happy, surprised
  • Location words: top, bottom, beside, under, opposite, diagonally, waho/out
  • Time words: āpōpō/tomorrow, next week, yesterday, later, after lunch, last week
  • Words that express belonging: Your paper, tō pikitia / your picture, my turn, our poster, her pencil, Sam's chair
  • Naming words: crayons, ringatoi/artist, āniwaniwa/rainbow, portrait, aeroplane, Nanny, Koro
  • Question words: what, nō whea/where from, where, how, why, who

As you add specific vocabulary consider:

  • Language steps: Add the vocabulary that matches children’s language steps (or one step ahead).
  • Language pathways: Where possible, add new vocabulary in children’s home languages as well as English.


Expanding te reo Māori vocabulary

Kaiako and child playing a game to expand te reo Māori vocabulary.

A team at an early learning service where kaiako had different levels of proficiency in te reo Māori created lists of words and phrases or “cheatsheets” as they called them. They asked, as narrators of tamariki experiences in this context, what words and phrases do we need to spontaneously use to expand vocabulary?

  • Tūingoa: The things tamariki will see, use, and/or descriptive words and phrases for them.
  • Tūmahi: The actions tamariki will experience.
  • Tikanga: How to keep safe and behave appropriately in this context.
  • Tūāhua kē: Other descriptive language features like idioms, superlatives, comparisons, and wonderings that we want to practise to extend thinking and ako experiences.

The creation of these word lists helped kaiako with their reo and also tamariki who heard the words frequently because the entire kaiako team used them. This repetition led to tamariki using the words too.

Story of practice: Intentional enrichment of vocabulary

A child climbing a ladder while talking with a kaiako.

At an early learning service, kaiako make a point of using step-up language in their interactions with tamariki. Step-up language is a strategy kaiako learnt through the Oral Language and Literacy Initiative. For example, when tamariki understand the word 'climbing' they introduce new words such as 'clambering' and 'scaling'. They let the children know and hear what the new word means in the context of play, “You’re clambering up that frame, which is like climbing.”

Kaiako also work hard at using accurate, technical language that they repeat often and over time. As a result, tamariki will talk about being (say) a civil engineer, an architect, or a biologist mixing compounds. They know what these terms mean.

As part of team planning, kaiako create a list of relevant step-up words that all kaiako will know and use. When and how to introduce these is also part of ensuring that all kaiako are on the same page and tamariki have multiple opportunities to learn new vocabulary.