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Vocabulary Goals for Preschoolers

by Damon Verial, studioD

If you’ve ever taken a second language course, you know that each student learns vocabulary at different paces. The same goes for a child’s first language. Regardless, in a second language course, course designers set specific vocabulary goals. This is because certain words tend to be more useful at the outset of language use. With the wealth of knowledge on preschool vocabulary development, psychologists and linguists offer a general set of vocabulary goals that you can expect your preschooler to shoot for.

The Word Spurt

One of the first goals to expect is the word spurt, a transformation in your preschooler that is both wonderful and sometimes maddening--imagine a parrot learning hundreds of words over the course of a few months. During the word spurt, expect your preschooler to increase her vocabulary by around 30 words per month, which is a significant speed increase from the 10 words per month that she learned after first learning to speak. This word spurt will happen early in her preschool years, beginning at different times for different children. While your child will learn many words, this does not mean she will use them all correctly. Be prepared to hear your child use a lot of new words incorrectly and sometimes in hilarious ways, such as using the word “moon” to refer to anything crescent-shaped, including half-eaten donuts.

New Word Types

As most moms have already figured out, prior to preschool, children mainly speak nouns. You probably already understand what a given noun means when said alone; for example, “mine shoe” means “where’s my shoe?” However, this mother-child telepathy doesn’t usually work in the real world, which is why preschoolers need to learn new types of words, namely verbs and function words. With increased input from you and the environment, your preschooler can shift the balance of his vocabulary so that it is not totally dominated by nouns. A preschooler should have a strong vocabulary of action words and function words before he enters kindergarten, as most kindergarten teachers cannot read your child’s mind.

Vocabulary (Mis)categorization

A rather strange goal for preschoolers is to miscategorize the vocabulary that they learn. Prior to the preschool age, children lack the concept of categorizing words. At the preschool age, children gain this ability, but use it incorrectly. This is okay as a goal, because you cannot expect children to categorize words at the adult level until around the age of seven. However, you can relish in this period, as you can play categorization games with your little wordsmith and laugh at the cute results. Try this: Give your child a mishmash of toy vehicles, animals and people. Ask her to put them into groups. Most preschoolers will put the vehicles and people together, putting the animals in a separate group. This is because people drive cars. This form of categorization is a normal stage of vocabulary development.

Understanding His Current Vocabulary

While the word spurt gives your preschooler a realm of new vocabulary to play with, he will not understand everything he learns at the beginning of his preschool years. What you get is a great producer of sounds, but a poor producer of content. Entertaining as it may be, this situation will end as he learns more about what the words he speaks really mean. During the preschool phase, your child will begin to internalize the real meanings of words that were previously merely functional. For example, if you have a dog, your child may be using the word “doggie” to refer to all four-legged animals. As he develops his vocabulary skills, he will naturally correct this mistake, and will correctly give your neighbor’s cat a new name.


  • Journal of Child Language; Early Lexical Development; H. Benedict
  • Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development; Structure and Strategy in Learning to Talk; K. Nelson
  • Categorization and Naming in Children; E. M. Marksman
  • Cognitive Development and the Acquisition of Language; T. E. Moore

About the Author

Having obtained a Master of Science in psychology in East Asia, Damon Verial has been applying his knowledge to related topics since 2010. Having written professionally since 2001, he has been featured in financial publications such as SafeHaven and the McMillian Portfolio. He also runs a financial newsletter at Stock Barometer.

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