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Our vocabulary is made up of words that we understand and can use in a correct and meaningful way.

Semantics is about the meaning of words and how they relate to each other. We can change the meaning of words with context, e.g. “wave” your hand or a “wave” in the sea.

A child’s vocabulary can be affected by their:

  • Listening skills
  • Auditory memory
  • Life experience
  • Expressive language and speech difficulties
  • Word retrieval abilities (when they have difficulty accessing a remembered word when they need to use it)
  • Reading ability
  • Need to learn English as a second language

If your child is struggling with their vocabulary, you’ll notice that they:

  • Have difficulty naming familiar objects and may make up new words, for example “cheese scraper” for cheese grater, “lawning” for mowing the lawn
  • Talk about a limited range of subjects
  • Are hesitant with certain words, repeat them or use an inappropriate choice of words
  • Overuse non-specific words, e.g. “it, there, that, thingy, whatsit”
  • Use a lot of gesturing and pointing
  • Have difficulty learning and remembering new vocabulary
  • Appear to talk fluently but without clearly expressing their meaning
  • Use a lot of ‘fillers’ such as "well" and "er….”
  • Make false starts and run ups, for example, "I went to the…, I went to the…"
  • Talk around the word, for example, "Well you know the thing you put tea in...
  • Change the subject to avoid the word they can’t find

Immediate conversational strategies

  • If you know what they’re trying to say, give the initial sound of the word, for example, for "microorganism", say "m"
  • Ask them where they might find the item, what it’s for, what colour it is; get more information to trigger them to retrieve the word
  • Encourage them to use word-finding strategies by asking them to think about the meaning of the word; describing it, talking about it’s function or where you find it, what they associate it with and words which are similar in meaning
  • Increase their knowledge about the structure of the word (phonological awareness) – ask them to think about the sound of the word, whether it’s long or short, how many syllables it has and what it rhymes with

Long term strategies

  • Give them opportunities to pre-learn material before it’s presented in class
  • Help them rehearse oral material, such as presentations and opinions or argument, for class and group work
  • Use vocabulary maps to explore how different words link together, for example,  ‘spidergrammes’, attributes webs and multiple meaning trees
  • Provide glossaries with a page for each curriculum subject, providing a short and simple definition for each word, using words the young person understands and always using the same definition. They can then practise the vocabulary meanings at home or in one-to-one sessions
  • Word maps can be very useful in supporting word knowledge. Use drawings and colour to assist visual memory.  Encourage the young person to use the same structure for other words.  A template can assist initially but encourage the young person to move on to drawing freely so the word map can be adapted to suit different words in different subjects
  • Introduce new vocabulary by using visual materials, objects, symbols and real experiences
  • Practise new words regularly
  • Use key vocabulary charts, labelled pictures, words and symbols
  • Read a variety of books, magazines and comics together every day
  • Teach vocabulary using:
    • A simple definition
    • Categories and category names, e.g. apple is from the category “fruit”
    • Associations, e.g. sea is associated with boat
    • Descriptions
    • Similarities and differences, e.g. How are cat and cow the same?
    • Finding the odd one out
    • Phonological features (long or short word, number of syllables, the starting sound, rhymes with x), e.g. bat is a short word that has one syllable, starts with b and rhymes with cat
  • Do individual reading sessions and identify any words they’re not understanding
  • Develop an individual vocabulary book divided into topic areas and using pictures, symbols, diagrams and simple definitions to explain word meanings
  • Develop a vocabulary wall and label displays


  • Ask for the meaning of a new, difficult or hard to understand word
  • Keep a list of new words and their meanings (glossary). It is helpful to do separate lists for different lessons so the list doesn’t become too long or confusing
  • Tell people you need time to remember the word for example “Can you just give me a minute to think of the word?” or “I can’t think of the word just now, could you come back to me in a minute?”
  • Describe the words you can’t recall or choose a similar word
  • Make a word map at the beginning or end of topics and keep it in your subject folder to help with revision

If you’ve tried all of these techniques and you’re still not seeing any improvement after four months, please speak to a teacher at school or a health professional.

Online language development workshops

Our team run online workshops on early language development. They are designed for parents and carers and those working within early years settings. We have three training sessions available on different topics to equip you with everyday strategies to support your child, aged up to five. Find out more information and how to register here.

Language Resources and Activities

Whole school approaches and symbol software

Further information