Vocabulary-building Strategies for Home and School

The issue

Vocabulary knowledge is an important underlying component of literacy. Children with strong expressive vocabularies can learn more words and more quickly understand words they decode once they enter school and begin learning how to read. A strong vocabulary provides children with language flexibility to express thoughts, feelings, and needs. In addition, vocabulary is the basis for learning higher order thinking skills, like inferencing and synthesizing. Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children who spend their early years (birth to 3) in language-rich environments, signed or spoken, acquire vocabulary at a similar rate as their hearing peers. However, DHH children who have delayed or inconsistent access to signed or spoken language acquire vocabulary at a slower and more variable rate. By preschool, many DHH children demonstrate expressive vocabulary skills that are significantly delayed. As a result, they enter school with limited vocabulary and delayed pre-reading skills, which puts them at risk to become struggling readers.

What we know

Parents and teachers can use specific vocabulary-building strategies to boost vocabulary knowledge in young DHH children so they can begin school ready to learn to read. Repeated exposure to vocabulary is key to vocabulary learning. Repeated exposures can happen through explicit instruction and within natural contexts. Explicit instruction provides DHH children with initial exposures to new words. The new words then create a foundation of knowledge on which to build. Contextualized vocabulary exposure helps children understand how to use new words spontaneously in natural situations. Some effective vocabulary-building strategies are:

  • Fast-mapping: Teach new words using the “known-unknown” strategy. Place an item or picture representing a target word with items or pictures of words your child already knows; for example, show the child a picture of a skateboard (target word) along with a picture of a dog and a car. You can draw attention to the new word by acknowledging it is new, “This is a dog and this is a car, but this is new to us! It’s a skateboard. Can you say/sign skateboard?” You could also ask the child, “Which one is the skateboard?” Frequently, the child will identify the new word simply because it is new and he/she already knows the other words. This gives the children an initial exposure to the new word and a foundation to build more confidence in their knowledge and ability to use it.
  • Conversation: Engage your child with an item of interest that targets a specific word. The word can be introduced explicitly and discussed in context. Use strategies such as following the child’s lead, acknowledging the child’s conversational attempts, and contributing a turn when appropriate. Expand on the child’s language and infuse target words as you do so that you become a model of sophisticated word usage within the natural context. Meal and play time are perfect opportunities for conversations.
  • Interactive book reading: Read to your child daily and go beyond the words on the page. Draw attention to new words (in print or pictures). Ask questions, make comments, and discuss the new words and associated concepts as you read. Preview the book and take note of words that appear more than once and target those words. This strategy will not only expose your child to new words, but will also develop their love of reading and important pre-reading skills.
  • Provide child-friendly definitions: When engaging in the above activities, include short, child-friendly definitions of new words. This will help children develop concepts about the words. Definitions should be simple and include words the child already knows.

What we don’t know

Some studies have investigated the effectiveness of these strategies with DHH children, but we still need more. We have much to learn from research with hearing children, but we still need to determine if the strategies that are effective for them will be effective for DHH children.

How do we appropriately assess DHH children’s vocabulary? There are no assessments that specifically look at development of ASL vocabulary. Assessments used for English vocabulary may not be developmentally appropriate for children who use ASL as a first language; results from these assessments may not be reliable for signing DHH children.


A strong vocabulary is important for success with literacy. Families and teachers can work together to support vocabulary development in DHH children. By using strategies that target, teach, and expose children to new words, families and teachers can set them up for future success with continued language expansion and literacy skills.

Posted on October 2, 2018 by
M. Christina Rivera
University of Arizona


Further reading