My four-year-old came home from school a few days ago excitedly chattering about what he’d learnt that day. I count myself as a pretty lucky parent; all of my children have enjoyed school and look forward to going each day, so this was nothing out of the ordinary. However, when he mentioned learning about shapes, I expected him to tell me all about circles, squares, triangles and rectangles. When he began to explain what spheres, triangular based prisms, cylinders and pyramids were, it’s safe to say I was pretty surprised. However, after a conversation with his teacher and some research on the subject from my end, I’ve found that it’s not an uncommon thing for more progressive teachers to forgo the ‘dumbing down’ of vocabulary for children that might be holding them back.

The research: Bigger words can improve literacy skills

Talk to any parent, or indeed, any person who spends a lot of time around children, and you’re likely to hear the phrase ‘He/she is just like a sponge’. I’ve certainly found this to be true – my children pick up a lot of the language I regularly use without me actively having to teach them, and as a result, their vocabulary is good for their age. However, a US-based study by David Dickinson and Michelle Porsche, published in 2011, seems to suggest that pre-school children that had been exposed to more sophisticated vocabulary at a young age not only had better emerging literacy skills when assessed at kindergarten but also were found to have better reading comprehension. This isn’t new research, though. In 2008, Margaret G. McKeown, PhD from the University of Pittsburgh published a piece of research covering the benefits of teaching big words to children. However, it seems that many parents still dumb down their language when speaking to their offspring.

What’s holding us – and our children – back?

So why are many of us so reluctant to teach our children the best word for any situation? I think as parents, much of it comes down to the fact that we don’t want our children to sound ‘too grown up’ both to us and to other people. I know many of the parents in my children’s school are keen to shy away from showing off, and if little Alvin can explain what gravity is or explain the nocturnal habits of a hedgehog that lives in his garden, then it can seem a bit too much to some. However, children learn about what they’re interested in and if little Alvin is interested enough to ask an adult about the subject, then surely he’s sufficiently interested in learning the right words to go with it. Another common gripe from parents is that explaining these trickier words is hard. But as this blog post ‘Explain Up, Don’t Dumb Down’ explores, it doesn’t have to be done all at once, and it can also help improve your child’s imagination.

How can we help?

There are plenty of resources out there geared towards helping children understand bigger words – and not all of them are offered by educational institutes. One example of using what children are interested in to teach them something tangible is something I regularly have on my TV at home. My son is currently obsessed with a ‘Blaze and the Monster Machines’, and I’m pretty happy to feed that addiction because this is one show – in my opinion – that has the concept right. Aside from having a format that most children love (trucks, cars, races a moral and a ‘bad guy’) it teaches children about STEM, including concepts such as friction, speed and acceleration, alongside a story that is easy to follow and doesn’t feel like learning.

So perhaps next time your child asks you a question about something they’re interested in, maybe it’s time to explore using some more sophisticated vocabulary in your explanation. It’s not showing off – it’s just good sense.