Motherhood

Using Big Words With Kids

Vocabulary: Using Big Words With Kids

Two-year-old Anton still feels like my baby. So, it always surprises me when he busts out bigger words like “enormous” or “frustrated” or (the other day when we were making pancakes), “Can me see the whisk?” Children soak up everything. So, I loved what Jenny Rosenstrach of Dinner: A Love Story (and the companion cookbook) had to say…


When Phoebe was in her “Threes” program at nursery school one of the first things she learned about was the weather. The kids would all take turns affixing smiley-face suns or frowny-face storm clouds onto a big poster titled “What’s the Weather Today?” She started asking us to describe the sky outside whenever we’d leave the house. “Sunny, Mommy?” “Cloudy, Mommy?” Once, when she asked me this question, the sky happened to be so dark and foreboding that I found myself struggling to use the word cloudy. (This is probably the only time being an editor by trade conflicted with the day to day of motherhood.) It wasn’t the right word to describe it, but it was the only word in her weather vocabulary. I hesitated. I briefly contemplated saying “really cloudy,” but that wasn’t right either.

“Ominous,” I finally said. “The sky looks ominous.”
“What does that mean, Mommy?”
“It means the sky looks kind of dark and scary.”
“Oh. You’re right. The sky is dark and scary. It is ominous.”

From then on, whenever the sky looked this way she would correctly identify it as “ominous,” much to the shock and delight of any grown-up who was around to hear.

I had an epiphany about parenting around this moment, an epiphany that most moms and dads probably have way before their child turns three: Kids are game for anything. It’s the grown-ups who have the harder time switching things up, letting go of a routine, trying something bigger and better.

Just because the world of institutionalized learning tells kids they need to know the words sunny, cloudy and windy doesn’t mean they are not capable of also learning the words ominous, blustery and scorching. In fact, to them, there really isn’t any difference between the words cloudy and ominous. Words are just combination of sounds. It’s the grown-ups who inject the shroud of grown-up-ness around “big words” by not using those words. It’s not the kids who think they can’t handle them.


Great reminder, right?

Her words made me think of a quote I had seen on a bookstore window years ago: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick and generally congenial readers on earth… Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words and they backhand them across the net.” — E. B. White

Thank you, Jenny!

Thoughts? Do you use big words around your kids? Have they been using any funny words these days? And just for fun, here’s a favorite video of Toby describing an Indian dinner when he had just turned three. :)

P.S. How to get your kids to talk at dinner, and trying out slow parenting.

  1. Anony-mouse says...

    I actually found myself saying “Good for you! Why isn’t this obvious?” to my computer screen when I read about teaching the word “ominous”. Parents talking down to their children eventually causes the dumbing-down of society. How is a child supposed to learn new words if you never use them? If they don’t understand what you’re saying, they can just ask, and that encourages curiosity, something that the current young generation is sadly lacking in. My parents never talked down to me (and I would find it incredibly insulting if they did). Maybe I know and use more “big words” than everybody else in my Honors English class, but this is a good thing! Read pieces of writing from a century or two ago and see how far the English language has degenerated. Of course, no child will be found reading such things, since they are taught from a young age that they should hate to read and that learning is boring. How sad. This course must be halted, and reversed if at all possible. We’re getting stupid, people, and we don’t have to be.

  2. I read a LOT of books as a child, and now I’m proud to say that I have great vocabulary. I often feel like a dork though, when I use a weird book-word and my friends are like: “….okaaay”

  3. As a teacher, I agree. Kids love new words. Whenever I’m struggling for a lesson, I just make up something to do with vocabulary. They also love noticing their new words in the outside world or in songs or in ads, etc.

  4. Carmen says...

    I was just talking to my mom about this. My husband and I are both English majors and when we get mad at our kids our vocabulary escalates with our emotions. So our kids hear things like, “do you comprehend the implications of your actions right now?!?!” They will either have great vocabulary or s fest of big words. Either way, now that I recognize it, it makes me laugh every time I catch one of us doing it!

  5. Colleen says...

    I was just thinking about this adorable video of Toby! Such fun to watch it again :)

  6. Libbynan says...

    I always talked to my children like they were adults…. probably because I was a stay-at-home mom with few actual adults to talk to. When my son was 19, he went to the Johnson-O’Conner Institute in NOLA for apptitude testing and they said he had the largest vocabulary of anyone they had ever tested. His comment, ” You haven’t tested my mom.”
    Really, kids just pick up everything. My daughter is a teacher now and vocabulary-building is a pet project simply because so few of her students can follow her lectures. It’s why reading is so important.

  7. When my kids get their iPod turn, they all love playing a game called Endless Alphabet that has taught them the craziest vocabulary. Famished, demolish, contraption… it’s been awesome. Also, I’m a big fan of using a large vocabulary with them, and it seems to be working out so far!

  8. Nina says...

    I will say that when my son was an infant I spoke in a more sing-songy way though I did use a normal vocabulary (usually). I don’t realize I did this until recently (my son is now 8) we were watching a friend’s baby and my son asked “did you talk to me like that when I was a baby?” and I realized I was talking in a sing-songy voice and being a little more um, goofy?, way then I would normally. Funny, how its so automatic I don’t even notice.

  9. Nina says...

    I do. My son is wonderfully observant and if someone says, or he reads, or I read him a word he doesn’t know or even uses a word out of context he will ask for the meaning. But more than that…I try to introduce him to many aspects of life I feel I didn’t learn from my parents. Didn’t it feel like parents knew so much more when we were little? and why is that? For me, it was because my parents just.wouldn’t.tell.me. I think it was they were tired (having had way too many kids) and a myriad of other reasons. The other day my father asked me who I was voting for and I wanted to respond “how dare you ask me that, remember in 4th grade when I came home from school and asked which political party you belonged to and you told me it was AS rude to ask about someone’s politics as their income and I was just.trying.to.fulfill.a.class.assignment and you refused to tell me?!” But I didn’t. I told him. And I tell my son. And I’ve taken my son with me voting since he was an infant. He will tell you about having to stand outside for over an hour, in the cold, in line with Momma to vote…with 100s of other people because our county decided to save money by reducing the polling places. And how I explained that its a right and privilege many people don’t get so we were gonna be uncomfortable and APPRECIATE it! I discuss with him what is important to me when looking at candidates. I talk to him about taxes and how they can help or hurt us. I have him watch me doing lots of things that were mysteries to me when I was a child because I don’t think life IS that mysterious and I want him to know not have to figure it out on his own. He knows how to order food, and pay bills, request what he wants kindly from a stylist or clerk, and talk to people like an adult – notice their haircut, compliment them on clothes, form opinions about behavior, etc. Heck the other day I told him to DISCREETLY look at that woman’s skin…and after we were away from her I said that is what meth (and yes I said methamphetamine) causes you to do to yourself (scratch sores all over)…never ever do meth! This is not to say my son isn’t a child and doesn’t act like a child or experience childish things. I make our conversations developmentally appropriate but I don’t need to be this all-knowing mother and he a small insignificant thing.

  10. This is so lovely! We use big words with our kiddos and it is always great to see what a kick people get out of those little mouths using big words!

  11. Oh, I absolutely LOVE this. Thank you so much!

  12. Katie says...

    Ah I looovve this!! Descriptive words bring me so much joy, and children are perfectly capable of learning longer words. Using them frequently and reading books with challenging vocabulary only helps them to grow!

    One of my favorite memories is the 3yo I nannied asking for ‘more Gruyere, please.’

  13. This is so true! I always talk to our 3 yr old like I would any adult and when she repeats what I say I’ll admit I think damn my daughter is a genius! Haha! When she says things like “mom it’s okay what’s 5 minutes in the grand scheme of things…” Mic drop! Haha! She also puts my husband & I in check if we don’t pray before dinner (we aren’t super religious but we try to give thanks before dinner and now she’s the boss of it). She’ll say “thank you for a wonderful day & please Take care of everybody.”

    Xo Lendy
    http://www.twoplusluna.com

  14. Anya Kamenetz says...

    I exult in indulging my vocabulary around my daughter. She picks up easily on the words and their meanings. One time, at 2 1/2, she told us at dinner “That’s rirrarious!” “What did you say, sweetie?” “Rirrarious!” “Sorry, what?” “You know…crazy funny!”

  15. I absolutely love this post. What a great tip! I have no kids of my own now but I’m taking mental notes :)

  16. julie says...

    my two year old (now 10- aiya) was a frequenter of the word “suffice”, which is one of my favourite words. she would also abbreviate everything, so heading out to the park would elicit a loud shout from up stairs, “ma! will a teesh suffice? or do i need a sweater?”.

  17. Lee says...

    So true! This is brilliant advice. As a childless teacher I used “adult” vocabulary in my classroom from the beginning; admittedly, because I didn’t think it was a problem. I have discovered other teachers are shocked by some of the more challenging vocabulary the children acquire in art class quite young. They are little sponges, we should feed their curiosity.
    ABT – always be teaching. It’s a beautiful thing.

  18. Cg says...

    Have always spoken normally and with “big” words w the Kiddo. She was delayed in speech, by a lot. But my husband and I always said we would keep talking to her in real speak as opposed to baby or double talk. Can’t stand it and since se had so much to make up, it only made sense to speak normally. Her first word was dolphin. Her second word was crown molding. Her third, baseboard. Speech therapy has helped tremendously. Now she’s 11 and yakking away, and continues to love using her new weekly vocab from school.

    • hahah! i hope my future child’s 2nd words are crown molding- i would love that so much and get a good kick out of it

      hammyta.wordpress.com

  19. Nina Leung says...

    I absolutely believe in this. Never talk down to kids. Because my husband and I always speak as we normally would around our children they both have excellent vocabularies. My 6 year old often uses the word symbol or symbolizes as well as the word reference among many more. My 4 year old knows the names of all the different clouds (he asked) as well as the names of rock families (he’s really into rocks). I’ve always been a believer in exposing kids to as much as possible early so they can take it all in and remember.

  20. Robyn says...

    As I was dropping my seven-year-old off at school this morning, he looked at me and said, “I need to be subsidized.” He has recently become obsessed with our collection of Calvin and Hobbes books, and has been picking up a lot of interesting concepts.

  21. i have followed this study for years and they have found that vocabulary is directly linked to lower performing students later on. in fact, i attended a conference where a speaker has devoted his entire practice to teaching jr high and high school students “big words” to help then not only improve but become over achieving scorers on standardized tests. pretty important deal and the teacher, researcher and momma in me, thank you for sharing it here with those not in the field who may have never given the power they have a second thought. xo.

  22. Being voracious readers, my husband and I (along with our extended families) always used ‘adult-sized words’ when speaking with our boys. The upside was that both had exceptional vocabularies entering kindergarten and consistently scored at the top of the charts on reading and writing assignments all the way through college (and now grad school). Why would anyone use little words with young children when their minds are huge intelligent sponges waiting to absorb whatever they encounter – including words? Speak with your little one as you would with any other person and you will never be disappointed in the outcome.

  23. HB says...

    Love it. I used a big word (can’t remember what it was now) with my 2yo (now 3), and my uncle said “she has no idea what that means!” To which I retorted, “and how will she learn, if no one ever uses it with her.” Touché :) I use big words and explain them as necessary. She’s a sponge!

  24. Each of your posts are so insightful, This is by far the best blog there is!

    Shruthi
    http://nyambura.co

  25. Haley says...

    We generally talk to our daughter the same way we talk to each other. We don’t purposefully use ‘big’ words, but don’t dumb down things for her.

    The other day at the park there was a lady using some ridiculous baby talk to her daughter (probably 12-18 months) and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes… until the daughter was counting flawlessly in multiple languages and I had to smack my own judgmental hand.

    • Mila says...

      I’m a speech-language pathologist as well as Elizabeth in the comment below, and also researcher in neurolinguistics. From a developmental standpoint, there’s a purpose to the sing song-y intonation of “baby talk,” and it actually aids in language acquisition. Yes, it sounds ridiculous to adults, but there’s a point. It isn’t so much the amount of words you’re saying but the social context in how you’re communicating with a child before 2yrs old (I could link to studies that show about vocabulary size of 2yrs old whose parents didn’t use that “motherese” intonation vs. parents that did, but that’s not really interesting to anyone but myself).

      I totally agree that once they get to pre-k, and maybe a bit before, there’s no need to “talk down” to children and oversimplify things with regard to language. They’re not going to learn new words unless they’re used around them, simple as that. But don’t be so fast to judge parents using exaggerated intonation with their little ones! It’s totally appropriate any only aides in building a child’s lexicon and language abilities :)

  26. Elizabeth says...

    As a speech-language pathologist who works with children l absolutely love this post.

  27. Katie K says...

    I love this. I’ve never shied away from big words with my son. At two he was saying dinosaur names like, “pachycephalosaurus”. I think there are probably a good handful of adults who can’t say that;)

  28. Yes, I do use big words with my kiddo all the time! And he has a huge vocabulary (he’s 5). The other day he was observing our cat, and described him (correctly) as “stumbling” and “rambling” around. I was impressed!

  29. Love this! I don’t have kids but I’ve read things in magazines that say to teach your kids the real words for anything (including their own girl and boy parts!) and a couple weeks ago I overheard a mom telling her small daughter she was seeing a “woof-woof” through the window. I was like “Really, lady?”

  30. Nicole says...

    I would like to raise the level of this conversation and give you some research based developmental concepts:
    Regarding using higher level language– yes please do! Typically developing children have a mental skill called fast mapping that allows them to learn new words with only one presentation. It is one of the hallmarks of typical development vs. disability

    Regarding ‘baby talk’– yes please do this too, with your babies! Google the term “Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)” and take a look at these norms. http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/
    You should be using language patterns near and slightly above where your child is at– so babble and imitate you infant child to reinforce the concept of communication and conversation

    • Lisa says...

      Are you a speech language pathologist like me? Fast mapping and ZPD remind me of graduate school…things we learned about but I rarely hear clinicians talk about in practice. We also “dumb” down our speech when talking to parents. I was describing pragmatics to a parent the other day (she had never heard the word in terms of child development) and realized I was talking down to her….

  31. Amy P says...

    Yes! I read this a while back too and because I’d noticed the same thing with my then-two-year-old daughter (with the word nocturnal – it sounds so funny coming from a toddler!), I’ve been much more eager to stretch her vocabulary with words that fit the situation the best. So much of their understanding new words comes from context anyway; she doesn’t even always need an explanation for a new word that I tuck in to our conversations.

  32. I once read this quote “if a kid can say tyrannosaurus rex he can say everything”. so true.

  33. What refreshing thoughts! I studied early childhood and I entirely agree with the sentiment that adults are more rigid in thoughts and expectations whereas children are open in many ways. :) Our two year-old has a quirky sense of humor and a wide array of emotional vocabulary that she uses in appropriate contexts. She will say she’s “bummed” or “concerned.” She’ll tell us that she’s hilarious too. ;)

    On a different note, I’d love to hear more about your friendships, Joanna! I wrote about friendship on my blog this week. Cheers!

    http://www.thewefiles.com

  34. Yael Steren says...

    I remember a few years back I was walking with my nephew who was 4 at the time and he used the word awning! I was beyond impressed! I definitely think it makes sense to use “big” words with kids! xx yael

    http://www.yaelsteren.com/blog/

  35. nohatnogloves says...

    Baby talk is pernicious. And astoundingly boring to do as well. I just spoke to my kids the way I would speak to anyone else. I do the same with animals. And, having taught for some years, it is pitiful how small some children’s vocabulary can be. Children who cannot speak, are not spoken to, will not go on to read or write with ability. Because I am old-fashioned I used to stop children in mid-sentence if they kept saying “it’s er like er it’s er like…like…” (no exaggeration, real talk) and just move on until they could compose an actual response to me. And I corrected spoken grammar when I found it. Not addressing this is dodging the issue.

    • Lisa says...

      Sorry I have to disagree with this. Baby talk is good (when they are babies)! The up and down of our speech helps their brains develop. And stopping a child mid-sentence when they are trying to think of what to say is not always a good thing…it can sometimes cause the child to become more aware of their problems recalling words. But I do agree that we should encourage talking to our kiddos! So very important! Put that IPAD away at the table and have a conversation. I see so many parents out with their little ones and they just hand over the IPAD while the parents talk. Breaks my heart.

  36. Ivy says...

    They teach us things too: I never knew the difference between an excavators and a backhoe until having a 2 year old boy in the house. (Main differences: excavators have treads instead of tires and backhoes have a “stabilizer leg”.)

  37. Lauren E. says...

    What a great outlook! When I was a kid I soaked up words like a sponge, and my parents never talked down to me. I still credit them with my big vocabulary. By the age of three I was using the word “facetious” because sarcasm runs rampant in my family and my dad was always saying, “Oh Lauren. I’m just being facetious.”

  38. Tricia says...

    So funny! My kids (3 and 5) are always talking about the OMINOUS CLOUDS. (cue spooky music) I probably used that word one time around them and it’s stuck with them.

  39. When my daughter was two, I was fruitlessly trying to get her to nap. I finally decided to sit quietly by her crib with my back turned to her. “Mama,” she said, “Don’t be mysterious.”

  40. kate says...

    I saw a family member for the first time in a long time, and she was with her son who’s about 5 or 6. The way she was talking to him honestly made me assume that he was differently abled – whether autistic, deaf, mentally impaired, I didn’t know. She implied he didn’t understand the concept of aunt or grandmother or cousin or even understand Engligh, for that matter. But once we started talking to him more (without mom present) it became clear that nope, he was totally fine, it was just how she was talking to him. IT was so sad.

  41. Sam says...

    My 2 yr old loves reading books meant for older kids (like “The Remarkable David Wordsworth”) and I’ve always questioned whether they were “appropriate” for his age. I’ll back off now!

  42. Maggie says...

    We learned early that if you speak to your kids like they are people (with less experience) with respect and like you would anyone else they rise to the occasion. Simple as that.

  43. Prudence says...

    This post really enlightens me about the ability of childern to learn big words from a young age! Thanks for sharing.

    Prudence
    http://www.prudencepetitestyle.com

  44. I love this topic very intriguing how kids pick up things so quickly . I am going to use me as an example . My mother always used big words around me and I was and am a walking dictionary just like my other siblings. She said I spoke in complete sentences at 1 but didn’t speak much because I told her that ” people keep irritating me and I do not feel like having a conversation with them” mind you I was two explaining to her why I didn’t say hi to the lady at the bodega lol People thought I didn’t know how to talk but then I told them why I did not feel like having a conversation with them. All of my family speaks in big words at times and I guess we are New Yorkers and the environment so we have that way about us and very serious in our dealings and conversations. I also still do not say much unless I feel as i’m inclined to lol

  45. Kristen says...

    My youngest brother grew up with 3 teenagers for siblings, and this naturally gave him a greater vocabulary than your average child as he listened to teen and adult conversations and tv shows every day since birth. When he was 3 or 4 my sister taught him to make requests or suggestions starting with “Perhaps…” After that I could never resist a request from him that started with “perhaps”. Cuteness overload.

  46. Rue says...

    Raised by an editor and a linguist whose main parenting philosophy was “read lots of books to the kids, talk to them like grown ups.” I’m in a STEM profession as an adult and I rely on my writing and communication skills daily (why do people think scientists shouldn’t be good writers? it’s crazy) and I credit my parents directly with providing me with that foundation. Big words for the win!

    • Lisa says...

      Called high print homes! At a much greater advantage than low print homes.

  47. Our son is 2 and I’ve definitely seen his little sponge brain soak up everything we tell him! So far his “advanced” words tend to be on his favorite subjects. So an excavator isn’t a scooper, it’s an excavator, because that’s what his books call it. Along with a million other advanced construction machinery words. The other place is church- my husband and I are pretty strict about keeping our son in worship with us, which means he knows the word “communion” – not just special bread time, or something like that. His daycare also teaches them spanish words, which he learns readily. I’m going to introduce some bigger words to our daily conversations now too!

  48. My kids are between 23 and 29 years of age; and yes! I’ve always loved words so always used big words around them. And now they all have wonderful vocabularies and 2 of them are avid writers. I think it’s wonderful to teach your children how to more accurately describe what they see, feel, do by giving them the gift of big words.

  49. We didn’t do baby talk either. Plus, we’re in France, so I would speak only in English and my husband only in French. That can cause delays in vocabulary, but our kid did OK with the big words (probably from the absence of baby talk and siblings). Some of my favorites, from age 3-4:
    “I’m waddling!”
    “I’m trembling with cold!”
    “prepare”–never “fix” as in I’m preparing my lunch. Maybe because that’s the word in French?
    and “I assure you!”

    • Lisa says...

      Speaking two languages to kids does not actually cause a delay in vocabulary. It’s a common myth. They have an equal vocabulary it’s just spread over two different languages. Learning two languages as a little one is so good for their brains though!

  50. This. With bells on. I really dislike that some people insist on baby talking to my children. We’ve always spoken to them as people – admittedly steering away from some of the more adult stuff but not adding a ‘y’ to every object or using silly voices. Their brains are like sponges and it is fab to feed them new things

    • Lisa says...

      Babytalk, or motherese, is actually encouraged (when they are true babies that is). The intonation patterns help their brains develop.

  51. Betsy says...

    This is such a simple idea, but so wonderful. I know I don’t do this with my daughter but I will start. I just love all your family posts, I so look forward to them.

  52. Sweet post :)

    I have to say though, I babysit a pair of very intelligent little girls (4 and 7) and sometimes when I’m reading them a story I cringe at the big words because they’ll ask me what it means…and sometimes they can be hard to explain! I can imagine that, being a parent, just sometimes you take the easier word for your own sake! But my parents never dumbed anything down for me and I hope, when I have children, I have the patience to explain everything to them, even if I’m at my wit’s end!

  53. We’re in Australia and our 50c piece is a unusual shape. My three year old asked me what shape it was and I told her, a dodecahedron. It stuck in her head and I love it when she tells other kids and adults that it’s a dodecahedron. Such a reminder that kids are sponges and it’s our responsibility to give them everything to soak up.

  54. Jenna says...

    When one of my nephews was 2 or 3, he told his mom he needed his privacy to go to the bathroom. After a while, she found out that he needed it to empty the soap dispenser and create a sink overflowing with bubbles.

  55. I’m all about talking regularly to kids. Sure, there are some situations where you have to be really clear, so using small words then might bring the message across better. But I agree that kids pick up every word you tell them, whether we adults have problems spelling these or not. I think it enriches their mind and helps them develop into smart, well-rounded people. I’ll even go so far as to say it will make them feel more appreciated as a person once they start to realize their parents never coddled them with words like boo-boo’s and da-da’s.

    I have to say I really like these opinion articles lately, and the discussions they spark! I rather enjoy reading different opinions :)

  56. Johanna says...

    I was playing with my friends’ 3yo son, and as he looked across the yard at his balding father and grandpa he looked at me and said, “One day when I’m a man I will lose all my hair and I will be so forlorn.” I laughed so hard at both the word choice and the keen observation!

  57. Jenny says...

    Love this post!

    Yes, our family uses big words- and it’s soo funny/cute to hear my two year old grab his cup that then shout, “hydrate” before he guzzles his water.

  58. My sister has always used adult vocabulary with my three year old nephew – they other day, when looking at a picture of his great grandmother (who he never met), he sighed and said “we will remember her fondly”!

  59. PB in PDX says...

    Yes, yes, yes! Build their vocabulary (and feed them Indian food). Words are so fun and exciting and colorful! What I enjoyed with my own kids is watching them form their ideas of who they were as learners and speakers by learning bigger words then engaging both adults and children in our community in conversations and using those words. The adults would react so positively to their complex vocabularies, you could just see the kids’ self esteem growing and growing. Now, in my classroom I don’t shy away from bigger words. I use them, and my students ask about them and eat them up like papadums!

  60. Melissa says...

    Great post! Yeah, I figured out not that long ago that there really is no need for me to alter my vocabulary (swearing aside!) when around kids. If they don’t know what I’m talking about, they ask. And they seem to enjoy the turns of phrases I use.

    Not high vocabulary or anything, but I was hanging out with a friend’s three year old recently and she kept kicking off her shoes under the table. “Buddy!” I exclaimed, “you blew a shoe!” I put them back on her and about twenty minutes later she kicked them off again, turned to her mum and proudly said, “Look, buddy, I blew I shoe!” Made me laugh.

  61. Lindsay says...

    This is great and so true. I love physics so when my 2 year old asks me why something happens, I usually give him the physics explanation if I know it! My husband and I look at each other and think it’s funny, but I know my son is listening and learning so much.

  62. We never talked down to our kids with vocabulary and try our best to explain the words we use when they ask us what they mean. We’ve often had adults comment on their vocabulary like it’s something amazing, but they are just using the language they hear. Both kids, ages 6 and 4, have really taken to the Magic School Bus shows recently and the things they retain and tell US about is amazing. Use those big words!

  63. Sara says...

    Totally agree with this. And talk to your kids all the time and most importantly read good books to them. That will give them a larger vocabulary more than anything.

  64. Jess T says...

    My two and a half year old, when he’s about to throw a tantrum, will tell me “I need that immediate-wy!” Even though I know he’s upset I can’t help but smile at his use of a big word when he still can’t pronounce his L sound!
    And today I used the word “pervasive” with my four year old and he just took it in stride. I don’t shy away from a robust vocabularly when they’re around – our language is beautiful!

  65. Celeste says...

    I love this! I’m not a parent, but I volunteer as a Girl Scout leader in an underserved community. I’m a writer professionally, and I’ll catch myself using big words when I’m talking to them about different concepts. Afterwards, I’ll get worried they didn’t understand. But thinking back, I can’t think of a time they’ve gotten stuck because I used a big word. They may ask what it means, but I’ll give them a definition and we move on.

    Bravo!

  66. I have always spoken to my children like adults. They both have a fantastic vocabulary. Last year, my then 3 year old said “look at that murmuration, Nana!”

  67. Absolutely! I love colorful words like “ominous” versus the generic cloudy. It may take some more explanation – which I’m usually up for with my girls – but it’s so much more exciting than the rote. I teach French from Kinder to 8th-grade so I’m always connecting my students with the “fancy” words and they love it!

  68. One of the things that frustrates me most in this vein is the stupid kids’ shape names. Don’t teach your kids hearts and diamonds and equilateral triangles when it is just as easy for them to learn trapezoid, rhombus, and the proper names of different types of triangles! Why shoot them in the foot for future geometry lessons when they will literally learn the geometry vocabulary just as easily as the dumbed-down kiddy shapes?

  69. Josie says...

    My five year old asked me this the other day: “Mom, what is a rhetorical question?” Well Yikes! I had to look the definition up (a question that does not require an answer) and read it to him thinking it was too much for him to understand. A few minutes later, he was telling me how his finger had stopped hurting him (he had got it caught in a door) and said: “My finger stopped hurting becauuuuuse…” I answered: “Because we put it in icy water?” And my five year old looked at me, totally serious and said: “It was a rhetorical question.

    I will never underestimate him again!

  70. Angela says...

    Before my own sweet son came along, I had the privilege of teaching for several years at a Preschool program run by our local Zoo. (Yes, it is as cool as it sounds. 😉) I often had parents question why we taught the kids big vocabulary words like omnivore, prehensile, or invertebrate. In addition to knowing kids can totally handle those words, I also think the repetition with which they hear them comes into play. We often had repeat vocabulary words over the course of the year, which I believe just solidified the sounds and meanings in their young minds.

    Another element that comes into play is your intonation and the context in which you say certain words. I always believed that, when I gave instructions using words they didn’t know, they still understood what I asked of them because they could hear my tone and place into context what they were hearing.

    Language acquisition is really a very fascinating subject! Great post!

  71. I agree with this so much. While I am not a mother, I did babysit. If you give a kid something, they will learn it. I think education for young children could be a lot more challenging — why can’t a seven year old learn calculus? It’s not actually that hard, we just assume people aren’t ready to know it until fifteen.

    It’s the same line of thought that using baby voices around kids isn’t great for them. Kids understand when you talk to them like they are adults. They are just tiny adults who are still figuring out how the world works.

  72. wry says...

    Obviously reading makes a huge difference. Our three year old loves Beatrix Potter and uses words like impertinent, coincidence, and plucky. The other day she was asking about heraldic crests. I really have a hard time explaining time in the context of historical events. Her starting point is, “Was I born?” Oh, mama! Does anyone know of a good method?

  73. Lindsay says...

    This is such a wonderful, fascinating and essential discussion. I think many people simply do not realize the profound impact their language has on early learners.

    We have always spoken “normally” to our kids (I.e. Not baby talk) and as a result, our three year old not only has a strong vocabulary, he has a love of learning because we really try hard answering his questions and not just giving the fastest answer. It drives me crazy (!!!) when my mother-in-law continues to say “ta” to my children when she wants something. That word means nothing!!

  74. Thankfully as the 20th century progressed we recognized that children were different emotional beings than adults–at least in 1st world societies ( I was going to remark on how luckily there are now child labor laws but unfortunately that isn’t the case everywhere!). But making things age-appropriate doesn’t have to mean diluting the manner in which we speak to children.

    Also hearing Toby talk about Indian food makes me want Indian food!

  75. Maywyn says...

    Bravo!

    When my sons were little, I was actually told that I shouldn’t talk to them like they are grown ups, like they can think as well as grown ups. I was told I should speak to them like they are children. I replied…How do you speak to a person learning language without speaking that language the right way? I didn’t use words I couldn’t tell them the definitions or explain to them when the asked, and they certainly did ask. There were times when their sentences came back to haunt me, but not without a beaming smile from me. I praised and said…Who gave you permission to think like that? That’s good thinking. :)

  76. Becca says...

    I loved hearing my 2 year old, “I AM SO FRUSTRATED!”

    • Sadie says...

      My two-year-old really likes that word! I think giving kids words to describe all their feelings really helps them. Every time my son misbehaves, I have made a point to say, “Wow, you are really frustrated/angry/sad/whatever,” and now he’s so articulate about his feelings! When they don’t know how to tell you what they feel, that’s when the screaming happens… or worse, the hitting.

      Once when I was holding my baby niece, my son ran up to me and said, “Mama! Put down that baby! I am feeling a little jealous!” and everyone in my family laughed. But I was so proud. He didn’t hit. He didn’t yell. He told me just what was going on.

  77. Hallie says...

    Hi! I’m a huge Cup of Jo fan, but have never actually commented on a post. However, this topic is so important to me and what I do! I am in Teach for America and teach preschool at a Head Start center in Chicago.

    Vocabulary is SO important for children’s language and literacy skills! Teaching children high level vocabulary (like “ominous”) is so important in our education system and at home. The achievement gap in education in the US is alarmingly large. What is perhaps even more alarming is the word gap. By age four, children born into low-income families hear approximately 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. This number is massive and has huge implications! Here’s a link to the organization “Thirty Million Words Initiative” which believes that tier 2 vocabulary like “ominous” could be the key to bridging the achievement gap!

    http://thirtymillionwords.org/tmw-initiative/

    • Yes! I was going to comment on Dana Suskind and her work with Thirty Million Words :) She gave a great lecture last year around this time that is available online (and worth a watch/listen!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSNRtJtNHT4

    • Thanks for sharing, Hallie!! And thanks, as always, Cup of Jo for creating such a wonderful online community!

    • Alex says...

      I came here to say the same thing! Here is the scientific article, if anyone wants to get really nerdy: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710871/

      Keep fighting to good fight, Hallie! The work you do with those kids is so so amazing and will continue to impact them for the rest of their lives.

  78. lynn says...

    I’m sure you’ve read about the many studies around children and word count and the debate on the importance of increasing word count (and vocabulary) among less advantaged children, but if not – here’s a good New Yorker ( as always)

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/12/talking-cure

  79. Holly Demaray says...

    I’ve thought about this many times when talking to my kids. If all words are new to them, why not teach them the most descriptive or appropriate ones, even if they are long or less frequently used?

  80. Kay says...

    YES! I love it, kids are amazing. My kiddo had a dinosaur phase where he would require a dinosaur documentary show daily. One time he picked up my tape dispenser and pointed at the metal portion—“Mama, the tape holder has serrations, like dinosaur teeth”–kids ARE sponges and have a great capacity to interpret the world around them intelligently.

  81. Samwise says...

    SO TRUE!

    I teach 8th grade math and science and classroom visitors and even other teachers comment with surprise and skepticism about the vocabulary I use in the room– brains are amazing and capable no matter the age of the body that carries them. They can do it, get it, use it, elaborate on it; they’re amazing! Love that EB White quote. 🙌

  82. Ros says...

    Re: the EB White quote: this is why good books for children are so important. Neil Gaiman, specifically, lives up to that, as a writer. I highly recommend his books for children.

    • PJ says...

      Thank you! We have one of Neil Gaiman’s books (Chu’s Day, which was a longtime favorite), but now I’m requesting more from our library.

  83. One summer day my Mom told my niece that we would eat outside. LIttle Catie said, “oh, al fresco!” She was two.

  84. Candice2 says...

    If the word fits, use it! The same with explanations. If your child asks, “Why is it raining.” “Water is falling from the sky,” is such a bankrupt answer. Tell them it starts with evaporation and move along until you’re explaining why the water is falling from the sky. We have introduced so many words and concepts to our 2 and 3 year old because we give them all the details. My husband and I have always recognized that our children are capable of everything, and even then we are still surprised sometimes. Kids are amazing!

  85. Ramona says...

    Out of the mouths of babes! One of my young nieces was once discussing a behavior with her older sister that she knew wasn’t right. She said to her, “Think of the consequences!” Another niece was describing the color of the sky shortly before sunset. She said it was “sky blue pink.” These two phrases have come into my life time and time again and I fondly think of those nieces when they do. ;)

  86. This is so great. I remember my parents using words like malcontent, debris, disingenuous and pandering when talking to my brother and I when we were very young. They never dumbed it down for us and I think it had something to do with our love for reading, writing and conversation.

  87. I’m a teacher and I do try to expand vocabularies because I think it means that they become more creative with their expressions and can better communicate. Sometimes, I explain what the word means and other times, they just get it.

  88. Jacy says...

    I use big words with my kids all the time. (Though I sometimes dumb-down for adults.) as a result, my six year old has a huge vocabulary. My younger one is 21 months, but very verbal.

  89. We never used baby talk and I think it really helped my children develop stronger vocabularies at a younger age. And we also answered questions with the correct info, never babying the answer down; I think that encourages further discussion, which only helps kids learn even more!

  90. steph says...

    Our family firmly believes in using regular words and not baby talk. The kids in our family are pretty amazing. It was funny when my nephew (who is now a highly respected attorney) said he was being “fictitious.” He was trying to say “facetious” and used an equally “big” word…just the wrong one ;)

  91. Julia says...

    Dear Joanna,

    I’m 22, not planning kids in the nearest 5 years or so, but your attitude towards parenting strongly influences me. I’m not only secretly looking forward to raising a wonderful individual but also starting to percieve human development differently.

    Besides that, I’m a fan of yours and anytime you say something bad or good happens in your life, I feel it personally. I wish you all the best in life!

    love from Poland

    • Olivia says...

      Julia, I completely agree! I’m 24 and not planning children for several years yet, but reading thoughts from Joanna and Jenny (and mothers like them) make me so excited for what’s ahead :)

  92. I love this and agree 100%! We have always engaged our daughter in conversation and she is absolutely blowing us away with her vocabulary at 19 months! She repeats everything and is even learning French! There is nothing these little people can’t do!

    xoxo http://www.touchofcurl.com

  93. EBeth says...

    I always used “big” words with my children…mostly because I really didn’t know any of the childish words to use! I am the youngest of four, never babysat and just did not have any experience in simplifying my language. Consequently, my boys always had advanced vocabulary skills. They also had impeccable manners because we always said “please”, “thank you”, “yes and no sir” to them, as opposed to telling them to say please, thank you, etc. A friend once asked me how we drilled manners into them and I couldn’t remember having to teach them anything. They just mimicked our behavior. Alas, they also picked up some of my bad habits so they had an advanced profane vocab, too! Oh well…

  94. Abby says...

    More on point: my husband and I both were kids who loved words, so there was no question for us about how we speak to our girls. My oldest, who’s 4.5, has been firmly in the “why?” stage for years, and I really enjoy the challenge of explaining big words in a way that makes sense to her.

    Lately, we’ve been listening to my (mostly indie-rock) music in the car, and after each one, she asks, “what’s that song about?” and I only have the few seconds before the next song starts to answer. It’s amazing how many of my favorite songs can be boiled down to, “it’s about regret, honey.” Which, btw, I’ve explained as “feeling bad about the way that something in your life happened.”

    • Johanna says...

      I remember as a kid asking my mom why so many songs were about love and heartbreak. It was one of those times when “You’ll understand when you’re older” was actually the appropriate response!

    • Abby says...

      Haha, SO TRUE. </3

  95. Jennifer says...

    Big words? My 10 year old’s favorite word for many years has been antidisestablishmentarianism, after her dad told her it was the longest word in the English dictionary. Some kids (and adults) love language!

  96. Jenna says...

    This is a timely post for me. Last night my three year old daughter proved this point. An aunt had brought over new bike for my daughter but the training wheels weren’t attached. My daughter said “We need to attach those wheels to stabilize the bike”. I have no idea where she picked that word up, but she knew exactly what it meant.

  97. shannon says...

    This is fantastic. My 2.5 year old amazes me with her expanding vocabulary, and it always make me laugh when I see so much of my speech patterns in her language. This is a great tip!

  98. We never spoke “baby talk” to our children so they learned pretty early the right pronunciation or word for things. I admit we would have a hard time not laughing in front of our son when he mispronounced certain words.. or just gave them his own name. I love that .. he started school at the age of 4 so his vocabulary was pretty good when he was small.

  99. I love this and it’s so true. I remember distinctly being a kid and not wanting to be talked down to. In Kindergarten, our teacher wanted us to say a word that started with the letter ‘A’. I put up my hand all ready to say “antique” but when the teacher picked me I chickened out and said “apple.”

    STILL REGRET IT!

    http://theroyalpost.com

    • This is too funny. Now we all know you had that big word in you! :)

  100. I love this! My much younger sister had the best vocabulary growing up; my favorite thing was hearing her sweet little voice interjecting into conversations with adults and then watching her hold her own.

  101. Andrea says...

    I study speech and language pathology, and there’s a term for this! For kids’ ability to learn words quickly: fast-mapping. Kids (and adults do this too) can superficially understand a word or concept after a very brief exposure to it. As they hear and see it used more they develop a more thorough understanding and can use it in more ways. Language development is amazing! And I’m ALL for exposing kids to “grown up” words!

    • Leigh says...

      I was just going to say this! I’m an SLP and I’m all for using “grown-up” vocabulary with kids! My students (kindergarten through grade 5) LOVE hearing new and different words and are always asking “what does that mean?” It’s also fun to watch and listen to them try and puzzle out the meaning of a new word in a book or story. And I love hearing them use the words later on!

    • Lisa says...

      Fellow SLP here too! I agree that understanding new words is important, but I wanted to encourage new moms to continue to use “baby talk” to their newborns. The fluctuating intonation patters actually help children learn language (as I’m sure my fellow SLPs here know).

  102. Stacie says...

    We have learned this lesson with our about-to-be two-year-old, Archer. Teaching him colors from a baby book is so uninspiring. I was an art major, and I had a professor who said “any color that took less than three words to describe wasn’t worth our time.” :) So Archer really LOOKS at things now. Way beyond the simplified toddler primary colors, he will say “Mama, look at the shiny silver car!” “I want that maroon sauce.” and “Mama, the sky is eyes blue!” (Meaning the color blue that his and my eyes are, blue-grey-violet. :) Or, he’ll string together colors he knows to make new ones. “This dirt is brown-orange-green.” It’s the sweetest.

    • PJ says...

      This is inspiring! Thanks for this tip.

    • I love that quote about colors! I feel the same way about emotions. I think we often water down our emotions into such broad categories. (happy, sad, mad), when really we should be trying to drill down to how we’re feeling more specifically. (And teaching children it’s possible to experience conflicting emotions–feeling joyous and envious at the same time, for example.) I’ve never thought that way about colors! Thanks for sharing!

  103. Samantha says...

    I love this post!! I used to teach 1st grade and I always say one of my favorite take-aways from my teaching days is knowing how capable kids are of learning and doing things that a lot of adults don’t think they could do. Kids can do so many amazing things if you just take the time to teach them and this post is such a great example of how parents can do this outside of school as well!

  104. YES!!! James and I were just talking about this! Lurve that E.B. quote.

  105. Great point of view. One of the best pieces of advice I received for speech and language development was to speak to my child as I normally would in every day.
    If they don’t understand, it encourages questions and further explanation and exploration.

  106. Midge says...

    When I was parenting toddlers, using big words around them both helped me to remember I was an adult, and made me laugh. And then my son went to kindergarten and said, correctly and in context, “That is a conundrum.” He’s now six years older, but that teacher still talks about it. Parenting win!

  107. Emily says...

    My parents owned a small business when I was growing up and we went to work every single day as a family. I was around adults constantly and teachers always praised my vocabulary. Friends, though, sometimes didn’t understand the words I was using. I didn’t dumb myself down for them and, likewise, I don’t talk down to my children. I want them to have unparalleled vocabularies for reading and writing and stimulating conversations. It’s one of the gifts I most want to give them.

    • Abby says...

      I have the situation now where adult friends often tease me for using $20 words (their term, ha!). Whatever, everyone has google, they can look it up. :)

  108. I love this! I work with elementary school kids, and have always tried to use strong vocabulary with my students. Because kids are so inquisitive, they rarely let a word that they don’t know pass by. Then those words start showing up everywhere: in writing, conversation and play!

    • Josie says...

      My five year old asked me this the other day: “Mom, what is a rhetorical question?” Well Yikes! I had to look the definition up (a question that does not require an answer) and read it to him thinking it was too much for him to understand. A few minutes later, he was telling me how his finger had stopped hurting him (he had got it caught in a door) and said: “My finger stopped hurting becauuuuuse…” I answered: “Because we put it in icy water?” And my five year old looked at me, totally serious and said: “It was a rhetorical question.”

      Never. Underestimate.

  109. Abby says...

    Omg. TOBY!!

    Um, a papadum!
    Um, a sitar!

    I adore him.

  110. Lora says...

    I read somewhere, when my son was tiny, that we learn something like 80% of all the words we will ever know by the time we are 3 or 4 (I can’t remember the exact age). So…I used big words all the time with my son when he was little. As he was growing up people frequently commented on his vocabulary and how he used all those big words appropriately.

  111. Sarah M. says...

    At the risk of sounding like a total creeper, my boyfriend (who also is a huge fan of mango lassis) regularly quotes Toby when I’m trying to convince him to go out for Indian food after I showed him that video years ago. hahaha.

  112. stefanie farquharson says...

    Ever since my kids starting reading (they’re 7 and 5) I have been telling them words that I love. My daughter once asked me why I always chose “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” to read when it was mommy’s turn to select the book. I told her it was simply because I love the word amble. I then try to explain why I love it – the sound, combination of sounds or how descriptive it is. I hope to inspire them to look beyond what we normally use.

  113. Lindsey says...

    I, too, am a magazine editor and lover of words in general (a logophile, if you will :) My husband’s favorite story of this coming into play unfolded one morning as we were trying to get our 2-year-old off to school. In a huff of frustration, I said, “This is nonnegotiable!” But it was clear from my daughter’s face that she didn’t understand, so I added, just as huffily, “And that means it can’t be changed!!” Every time someone uses the word “nonnegotiable,” my husband adds, “And that means it can’t be changed!” whether that person knows the story or not :)

  114. I love using big words with my son, who picks them up easily. He’ll be three in June, and we talk about needing water to “stay hydrated,” and other fun phrases. It’s exciting to watch a little person fall in love with language, through books and conversation. When he uses a funny idiom, I know he’s listening!