Keys to Kindergarten: Vocabulary and oral language development

How to build your child’s language skills in time for kindergarten.

Learning Stages

By Becca Ross

Kindergarten & First Grade Teacher

Becca is a schoolteacher and blogs at She loves to cook, bake, garden, sew, quilt, teach and simply spend time with her family. She strives to find art in everyday things.

The good news about building Vocabulary & Oral Language skills in preparation for kindergarten is it's really FUN! Two of the best things you can do are to allow time for free play and to spend time talking and reading with your child.

Play-based learning

Children build vocabulary and oral language skills doing many of the things they love to do: drawing, playding with dolls and stuffed animals, playing with cars, building with blocks, dressing up, and playing pretend in a kitchen or home center. The language and conversation kids use during these play times provide a strong literacy base for a child entering kindergarten. The type of dialog that children use while playing in a home center will be very different from the language they use while building with blocks, so having a variety of activities for your child to choose from will encourage a broad range of vocabulary words incorporated into their daily play. As you are playing with your child, or observing their play, use language and vocabulary that will help them grow. Identify and explain the uses for different objects in the kitchen and use interesting language when playing with stuffed animals and dolls. Young children are like sponges, ready to soak up the language around them!

Conversations count

Spending time engaged in conversation during your shared experiences will also help build vocabulary and oral language. Taking walks, going for bike rides, heading to the park, flying a kite, cooking together, visiting a farm or petting zoo, and even raising pets at home can all be terrific experiences for kids and give you lots to talk about. Be sure to talk to your child throughout these day-to-day experiences, using language that helps them grow in their vocabulary development. Too often parents, teachers, and caregivers will use simple words with kids. While it’s important to explain things to your child, using words within their developmental level, it’s also important to remember that kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. When you’re cooking with your child, ask them to get the measuring cup instead of calling it a scooper. They may have never heard that term before, but suddenly it becomes part of their vocabulary.

Thematic explorations

Exploring passion topics such as gardening, studying rocks, planets, trees or animals can be incredibly engaging for young children. By simply finding something they are interested in, and setting up some learning experiences, children may be naturally drawn to explore and learn more. Do the birds come back to your yard when the weather warms up? Set up a basket with binoculars, books about birds, and pictures of birds that live in your area. If your child is truly interested in this topic, the questions will start flowing and it becomes another great opportunity for vocabulary development.

Poetry & rhyme

Poetry, nursery rhymes and songs are fun and engaging for young children, but they also contribute to the foundational skills young children need in their oral language development. They will begin to hear rhyming words and be able to predict the words that are coming next in a song. When singing songs, children will learn how to articulate words and will practice pronouncing words over and over while having fun. Nursery Rhymes also provide a great opportunity for conversation with your child. Talk about how Jack and Jill might have been feeling and ask what they think happened after Jack and Jill tumbled down the hill. Spending time acting out different songs and rhymes will also help children internalize the meanings of different words they are hearing. While a child may be new to the word tumbled, they will certainly remember the meaning after playing around and tumbling across some pillows (an imaginary hill) in their living room.