Vocabulary Development - Birth to 12 Months

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

As a parent I am far too familiar with the pull to compare children's various abilities, whether it be academic abilities, athletic abilities, or social abilities. It's hard not to get caught up in the race for your children to be the "first" to learn something new or to not feel like they are falling behind their peers.

As a reading educator, I have learned the importance of focusing on each child's individual strengths and abilities. Each child has their own gifts and to compare a child not only sets the child up for failure, but also puts the parent or educator, on a path to failure as well.

Brain research supports that earlier isn't always better and comparing children puts undue pressure on everyone involved. We see it in schools all the time. I taught first grade for many years and upon my daughter entering kindergarten, I was surprised to learn that many of the first grade standards and had now become kindergarten standards. Were the current kindergarten students somehow more advanced than first grade students from years earlier? Not at all, but the current trend in education "earlier is better" has put students at a disadvantage.

Let's take a look at some of the research surrounding brain research and specifically how it relates to reading. Windows of Opportunity as defined by Sousa, 2017," is a period of time when the brain demands certain types of input in order to create or stabilize long-lasting structures. For example, a child's brain needs visual stimuli before the age of 2 or the child will be forever blind." This supports the notion that learning earlier is better, but learning too early may be counterproductive. (Sousa, 2017). I'm especially interested in windows of opportunity as they relate to literacy development. Babies begin to utter sounds and babble as early as 2 months. According to Sousa, "By the age of 8 months, infants begin to try out simple words like mama or dada. The language areas of the brain really begin to fire around 18-20 months. A toddler can learn 10 or more words per day and by age 3 will have a vocabulary of over 900 words and increase to over 2,500 words by the age of 5." This truly shows how important it is to talk to your child. Research supports that babies whose parents, especially fathers, talked to them more had significantly higher vocabularies (Henderson, Weighhall, & Gaskell, 2013; Pancsofar & Vernon-Feagans, 2006). Children who know the meaning of most words in their vocabulary will start school with a greater likelihood that learning to read will be easy and quick (Sousa, 2017). The window of opportunity for vocabulary development begins during the infant stages and continues through age 6. This doesn't mean that the brains ability to learn new vocabulary tapers off, but the pace at which a child learns new vocabulary slows down.

What can you do at home to help foster vocabulary development? Let's start with your child's first year:

Age Appropriate Learning Activities for Building Vocabulary in Your Child's First Year

Newborn - 1 Month:

  • Make eye to eye contact with your baby while making faces or stick out your tongue. Give your baby an opportunity to mimic you. (Imitation is learning at this stage.)

  • Talk or sing to your baby in your normal voice.

  • Begin to show simple pictures and move a favorite toy or stuffed animal about 10 inches from your babies face. You're encouraging your baby to visually follow the images or item. Mobiles are also a great tool for this as well.

  • Listen to your baby - over stimulation can be stressful.

Book Suggestions:

  • "Guess How Much I Love You" Sam McBratney

  • "The Runaway Bunny" Margaret Wise Brown

1 Month - 4 Months: Learning continues to take place at lighting speeds during your child's waking hours. Everything in your child's environment provides opportunity for learning.

  • Sing songs and read to your baby as often as you can. The sound of your voice and being close are what your child is learning from.

  • Walk around with your baby and name objects you can touch. For example "bottle" or while looking in a mirror "baby's mouth" or "mommy's eye."

Book Suggestions:

  • "Black and White" Jane Foster

  • "Wibble, Wobble" Catherine Hnatov

4 Months - 8 Months: Infants are busy during this growth period! Putting anything they can find in their mouth and are "talking" much more at this stage. They are beginning to become even more curious in their surroundings.

  • Continue to build on previous activities to provide opportunities for your baby to mimic you. Such as making noises with your mouth or making funny faces.

  • Read, read, read to your child. Show them pictures of what you're reading together.

  • Sing songs and dance to various types of music.

  • Engage in predictable songs and movements to accompany them such as "This Little Piggy" or "Patty Cake, Patty Cake."

  • Again, listen to your child and know when they've had enough. Over stimulation can stress out your little one.

Book Suggestions:

  • "Belly Button Book" Sandra Boynton (one of our favorites!)

  • "Pajama Time" Sandra Boynton

  • "Goodnight Moon" Margaret Wise Brown

  • "Color Me: Who's in the Pond?" Surya Sajnani

8 Months - 12 Months: Two major milestones are on the horizon for infants at this stage: walking and talking. Infants are becoming much more social, too

  • Read and tell stories about events going on in your baby's life.

  • Read brightly colored books and encourage your baby to turn the pages.

  • Talk about what's going on around the baby: "Here's your bottle." "Let's play with your puppy."

Book Suggestions:

  • "Where is Baby's Belly Button" Karen Katz

  • "Baby Faces" Kate Merritt

  • "Look at You" Star Bright Books

  • "Colors" Sara Anderson

Next week, we will continue to look for ways to encourage vocabulary development during the Toddler Years.

I would love to hear about your favorite books that you share with your little ones. Please comment below or send your suggestions to sarah@skbpublishing.com.

Happy Reading,



How the Brain Works, 5th Ed. David A. Sousa (2017)

Developmental Profiles, 3rd Ed. K. Eileen Allen and Lynn R. Marotz (1999)

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