15 Easy ways to improve a 3 year olds vocabulary

Last year at my family’s christmas party, our 3 year old niece used a word that I would have never expected. Whilst playing with toy vegetables and making “dinner” for everyone she skipped around the room dishing out beautiful but imaginary plates of food. The variety of different meals she had memorized shocked me. Pesto & pasta, roast potatoes and by far the funniest, which had the whole room in hysterics, she turned to her own mother and asked “Would mummy like wrap of the day?”.

Our 3 year olds seem to pick up new vocabulary like a sponge from their everyday lives. At 3 years old their vocabulary should be around 200 words and they should be using 3-4 word sentences. To improve our children’s vocabulary or maybe just to catch them up to their friends is very important at this stage in their communication development. A good vocabulary is very important for their success in school and beyond. The time to start helping them is right now, so they can reap the benefits in their bright futures.

It may feel like our three year olds just get their language and vocabulary skills naturally in everyday life, this is partially true. Evidence suggests though that young children exposed to more speaking and reading and the quality of time spent by their parents in improving these skills has a large impact on their future vocabulary and success in reading in school.

Now, we know how important a good vocabulary is and that we need to start improving our 3 year old’s vocabulary now. I have put together how I would approach improving their vocabulary into 15 easy steps, which you can find below.

Jump straight to free vocabulary list for your 3 year old

15 easy tips on improving your 3 year old’s vocabulary

1.Read to them:

The amount of time that you, as a parent, sit and read with your child is a great way to indicate how successful they will be at reading in the future. It’s as simple as that. Reading is so important to me, I think it’s the one skill more likely to bring you happiness in life than anything else. Having good solid reading skills allows you to learn more effectively in the future.

As for tips in getting you reading more with your child I can suggest trying to make it a daily activity. Obviously bedtime is the perfect time to open a book with your 3 year old as it relaxes them and will become a great cue for them to realize that it’s time to go to sleep. If you already read to them at bedtime, why not add in another session before nap time? This will strengthen their vocabulary and those sleeping cues.

Set a reminder in your phone that goes off every day so you don’t forget to take 5 minutes out and sit down and read a book with your 3 year old. It can be all too easy to let the busyness of everyday life get in the way and make you forget to enjoy these special moments.

2. Have your 3 year old read out loud every day:

Reading to your 3 year old is great, one thing that can improve their understanding is having them read out the story aloud to you, or if they find that too difficult with a particular book, have them read out some words with your help. When a child reads out the words it activates a different part of the brain to having the words read to them. This can improve their understanding, pronunciation and memory recall.

This kind of reading aloud can also improve their confidence. With your encouragement they can practice how to say words that they have difficulty with. Some children may be too shy to attempt trying to say new words in front of others, but this is not the case when they feel safe at home with you.

Learning with dad
Learning with dad

3. Encourage your 3 year old to read the menu at restaurants:

Having your child read menus, signs and general information while they are out and about in their everyday lives is crucially important to their vocabulary development. Vocabulary that we use everyday to find information from our surroundings can be different to the ones found in their books. This is why it’s important to get them reading everything they see! An easy one is to have them try and read you the menu when ordering food at a restaurant. Help them read and decide what they would like to eat.

There are plenty more opportunities to get them reading though, take a look around you. Shop signs, road signs, labels in supermarkets. The list could go on, the most important takeaway is that you should incorporate reading into your everyday life which will do wonders for their practical vocabulary.

4. Singing:

Every 3 year old loves a good sing along. Get them singing to the radio, making up their own songs or even singing to the dog. Singing to them helps keep their interest and allows you to expose them to more language than just talking. Sometimes I find that I try and talk to my little ones throughout the day so they can have more exposure to different words but it becomes hard to constantly think of topics to speak to them about. That’s where singing can help you out, just sing your favorite songs to them, you know the words and the repetition can help them learn new ones too.

Singing to your child also helps you bond with them in a different way than just talking. If they join in then it can help them express themselves creatively. Singing also helps them develop their breathing skills.

5. Play word games

Every 3 year old loves a good game, what better way to include word games into their everyday play. You could use pre-made games or cards, create your own or simply use speaking games. There are plenty of games for you and your 3 year old to enjoy, here are some great examples to get you started:

  • Guess the Animal: You can make an animal noise and have your three year old guess the animal.
  • A game of feel: Collect a number of small items together that have different textures and feel. Then have your 3 year old close their eyes and rub the items on their cheeks and they have to guess how the item feels. Hard? Soft? Fuzzy? Cold?
  • Simon says: You can try the classic game of Simon says. Simon says “Clap your hands!”
  • Body Parts: Have your child call out which body part you should kiss next, or you could try it in the bath, which part of you should we clean next?

6. Discuss their day:

At the end of every day, when it’s time for bed. It’s a nice time to discuss their day. You can ask them about what they enjoyed that day, what they didn’t like and who they met. It is a lovely time to bond with your 3 year old and great for working through confusing things that may have happened to them. They will feel loved and listened to, if you have the time and patience for them in the evening.

Discussing their day will also have the added benefit of getting them to use new words if they have had new experiences that day. Describing their ever more interesting social interactions with their friends will help them understand how to act around others and how best deal with stressful situations they will come across in the future.

7. Talk about plans for tomorrow:

After you have discussed the day they have just had there’s no better time to plan the events for the next day! What do they want to do? What do you have to get done tomorrow and why is it important? Who you will meet along the way tomorrow? It will also give you chance to explain any situations that might arise before they happen so your three year old can be prepared.

Discussing future plans opens up a whole next area of vocabulary for your little ones. Now they can learn to describe what they will do tomorrow in a future tense. It also helps them feel more relaxed as they know what to expect. Discussing things like these just before bed is a great idea because during sleep their little brains will be able to process all the new information more effectively.

8. Pretend reading:

Pretend reading is an interesting and fun activity that you can enjoy with your three year old that helps them develop their vocabulary and language skills. The aim of the game is to give the book to the child and ask them to read it to you, most children will then open it up and try to have a go.

The important difference when playing the game of pretend reading is not to correct them when they make a mistake. Just let them carry on reading. It helps them gain independence in their own reading skills and allows them time to make their own mistakes. It does rely on you giving them your full attention and praising their efforts to try and understand the book and tell the story to you.

9. Storytelling:

Storytelling has to be one of the most fun ways to expand your child’s vocabulary. It’s a chance for you to use your imagination to the full. You can even enlist the help of your little one, maybe they can give you a character that they would like to hear a story about, for example a naughty monkey or a sleepy dragon.

You can then use your own imagination to weave a tale for them. Don’t worry if you feel like you aren’t great at making up stories or you don’t have a vivid imagination. Your three year old will love any kind of story you come up with. Maybe you could even have them appear in the story? That’s sure to get you extra points with them. You can borrow ideas from stories you already know or make more adult tales a lot simpler so they can understand.

Reading child
A story to capture their imagination

10. Listening to nursery rhymes:

Listening to nursery rhymes and any simple child friendly music for that matter is a great way to expand your three year old’s vocabulary. Music activates a different part of your child’s brain than regular conversation, have you ever experienced remembering all the words to a song you don’t even like and at the same time you can’t remember a simple pin number over and over again, I know I have!

Music allows your 3 year old to connect to words in a different way and will keep them interested in learning longer than just one method of learning new vocabulary. It’s a good idea to use many of the different approaches on this list and keep them excited about the whole process. Nursery rhymes have the added benefit of being repetitive, so it gives your child chance to learn the new words and sentences off by heart so they can understand them better. Plus it’s also lots of fun!

11. Positive feedback:

Positive feedback is very important for your developing 3 year old. Children respond to the feedback that they get from you as their parent. If you encourage their use of a new word by praising them that will stick in their memory and they are much more likely to use that word again. If they don’t have this feedback in terms of praise then they will struggle to know if what they are saying is correct. Make sure to keep the feedback positive or at least constructive, negative feedback isn’t beneficial for your child. They can and will learn better without it.

12. Let them experience more:

Make sure to give them new experiences as much as you can. When a child experiences something new a whole world of new words opens up to them. For example, if you take them to the aquarium, there will be a whole new underwater world of words to learn.

Fish, Octopus, Seaweed, Penguin, you get the idea. If you don’t have access to these types of places you don’t have to worry. A walk to the library or a museum or the supermarket or a local wood will do. Exposure to new experiences is key here. New experiences will fire up their natural passion for learning and help those new words stick in their mind.

13. Cut down on screen time:

Excessive screen time for young children is becoming more and more common. It’s an issue that has crept up on us all as we now lead lives more tightly woven into technology than ever before. You need to limit the time each day that your children are using screens, this includes TVs, phones and tablets. Most of the time they aren’t as interactive and don’t develop their social and vocabulary skills. They take up valuable time in which your child could be doing any fun developmental games, reading, or using their own imagination. Children will have plenty of time to learn how to use technology as they grow up, make sure they have the basics like vocabulary nailed down solidly first before they use screens extensively.

14. Discuss their choices:

Three year olds make hundreds of choices every day. What food to eat? What clothes to wear? What fun thing to do at the park? A great way to get them talking and thinking is to get them to discuss their choices before and after they make them. Do they want carrots or peas? Why? Do they want to wear shoes or boots? Why? Interacting with your child like this gets them thinking about the decisions they make everyday and expands their vocabulary so they can describe why they make their decisions.

15. Fuel their interests:

If your child loves trains then get interested in trains with them. If your child loves birds then fuel their interests with a book about birds. Get them more involved in their passions. Have them tell you about birds, draw the birds, learn about birds. A passion for a subject can go a long way to fueling how much they will learn about it and expand the words used to describe their interest in it.

A vocabulary word list for 3 year olds – Free Download

When a child is 3 years old there is a certain list of words that they should know or understand. If they are struggling with more than just a few of the words on this list then this could be a warning sign that their development isn’t going smoothly and it might be time to seek professional help. Below is a list put together by a researchers of the 331 most frequently occurring words of preschool children inthe study by Marvin, Beukelman, and Bilyeu.

If they are not yet using some of these words, then don’t worry. You can use this checklist to encourage them to expand their vocabulary and catch up with their friends.

Vocabulary List For a 3 Year old – PDF (Free download)

You can pin this list on your wall so it’s an excellent daily reminder to help your 3 year old expand their language skills. Use it at the same time as the tips that I have laid out for you earlier in this page and I am sure that over time you will see your little one start to bloom in the use of new words and surprise you every day!

When to worry?

If you feel like your 3 year old has difficulties with their language development then it might be time to seek professional advice. Some of the warning signs that you should look out for I will list below:

  • Difficulties in hearing
  • They find it hard to follow simple directions
  • A poor vocabulary
  • Stuttering speech
  • Words are unclear

Please don’t worry if your three year old displays any of the above problems, just go and see your doctor for advice. It’s much better to find out the issue now so it can be solved or adapted for them and they can progress in developing their communication skills naturally and together with their friends.