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Family Word Collection

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

by Jill Macchiaverna, Elementary ELL / Bilingual Paraprofessional

All typical babies, regardless of backgrounds, know about the same amount of words at 18 months. After that, a huge discrepancy will emerge. The vocabularies of babies whose families talk to them a lot becomes much larger than the vocabularies of babies whose families don't talk to them as much. This is maybe not too surprising, but what did surprise me was that families that talk a lot or talk a little spend the same amount of words on what the researchers called 'business talk.' Things like, 'don't touch that,' 'let's put on socks now,' etc. All families spend about the same amount of words on business talk! The families that are talking less basically only have business talk. Families that talk more are chatting about interests, people, everything other than just giving directions, and this conversational environment does a better job of building kids' vocabularies and their understanding of the world around them (Risley & Hart, 1995).

The benefits of rich conversation do not end with infancy. We can continue to help children expand their vocabulary by making word-finding a family affair. Keep a small notebook in a community area of the house. Make a show of finding words you like or that you are unfamiliar with and writing them down in the notebook. Look them up and include a paraphrased definition that everyone in the family will understand. Invite everyone to participate by adding new words. If you speak more than one language at home, include the translation in each language.

Bring the notebook with you when you say goodnight. I find bedtime is a great time to talk about interesting words we’ve found. My kids get to think they’re tricking me into letting them stay up later. I get to think I’m tricking them into loving language.

This activity capitalizes on your child’s Zone of Proximal Development, the cognitive growth they can experience with the presence of an expert (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986, as cited by Johnson & Keier, 2010). You’ll bring words and definitions into your child’s vocabulary that they might not have noticed otherwise. Likewise, you’ll probably be introduced to some interesting new language as well. This activity works well for readers at any level and any age because we can always learn new words. The best part is having shared experience, wonder, and language with your child.

Note: To adapt this for the classroom, allocate space on a wall for students to add the interesting words they find as they come across them. Dedicate time to share the new words with the class. Include translations for your English Language Learners, and encourage ELL students to add words in their own language.


Risley, T., Hart, B. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Johnson, P., Keier, K. (2010). Catching readers before they fall: Supporting readers who struggle, K-4. Stenhouse Publishers.

Read the full action research paper here:

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