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At this age, it's more important to focus on how your grade-schooler uses words rather than the number of words he says. As your child moves through elementary school, he should make big strides in refining word use. Grade-schoolers delight in explaining experiences in great detail and with much elaboration — sometimes too much elaboration for some parents' ears! That said, as a rough guide, your child should have a vocabulary of more than 2,000 words at this age.
Since it is virtually impossible to keep track of the number of words your child uses, you'll want to look for other signs that may indicate that he has a vocabulary weakness. Some red flags include:
• Forgetting new terms quickly
• Telling stories using vague language
• Using overly general terms — for instance, calling all flowers "roses"
• Demonstrating difficulty with categories — for example, referring to shoes and clothes as "stuff you put on"
• Exhibiting trouble with synonyms, antonyms, and words with multiple meanings
• Using phrases such as "a twisty plant that goes up the side of the house" even after the correct word or phrase (vine) has been heard many times
• Using words that are similar to, but not as precise in meaning as, the appropriate word ("We went to uh...that sandy place with water.")
• Stumbling over social conversations and classroom discussions
• Performing poorly on tests
• Experiencing difficulty with reading comprehension because of trouble understanding what the words mean
Assuming that your child's hearing is fine, you can do a lot to improve his vocabulary. Talk with your child about everything — what's on the menu when you go out for dinner together, things you pass on the way to soccer practice, something you read about or hear on the news. Explain, discuss, and answer questions with patience and clarity. Try to be precise in your own use of language, and use new words over and over in many different contexts. For instance, practice describing how people look, using specific clothing names, such as skirt, jumper, overalls, and sweater, instead of dress, pants, and shirt. And, of course, read stories out loud to your child and chat about them together. Independent reading is a great way to build vocabulary; listen to your child as he reads his books, too. Equally important, make sure his classroom teacher is aware of his problem.
If, after trying these techniques for a few months, you don't notice any improvement in your child's vocabulary, talk with his pediatrician, teacher, or the speech-language pathologist at his school. His school can provide a free speech and language screening. Or his doctor can refer you to a private speech-language pathologist for an evaluation.