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’ 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 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

  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

  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!


  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.
    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!

  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

  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.