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The more words, the merrier:
How you can help develop your child's vocabulary

Dr Chung Tzemin, Education Scientist,
CommonTown Pte Ltd
17 January 2019
dudu child vocabulary.png

Let’s say you have to describe a house to help someone to find it, or you are asked to share your feelings or thoughts about a particular topic. Wouldn’t you be able to express yourself much more clearly if you said more than just “big house” or “good” or “bad”?

Words or vocabulary are the stepping stones towards learning grammar and eventually, reading. This is why helping your child develop his vocabulary is so important. It gives him more words for describing, narrating, explaining and expressing what he feels.

The wider his vocabulary is, the more confident he becomes in communicating in any language, and that includes Chinese. With confidence comes more constant and continual use, and as we all know, practise makes perfect. So what can you do to help expand your child’s Chinese vocabulary?

The ways are almost as numerous as words, themselves, but let’s take a look at some of them, here.

During Chinese Reading Time 

In our first post, we’ve talked about setting aside a regular time for reading Chinese story books together with your child. Chinese books for children are a great way to increase your child’s vocabulary, especially Chinese short stories with pinyin to help with pronunciation.

Here are some ways you can help with vocabulary-building during reading time.

1. Choose three new words from the book together with your child for your child to learn.

2. Re-read the sentences that contain your chosen words.

3. Tell your child the meaning of the word in a way that will be easy for him to understand.

4. Give examples of how the word can be used in other contexts.

5. Ask your child to provide examples of how the word may be used using contexts different from those in the book.

6. Ask your child to say the words out loud together or read along with you.
a. Create a “word bank” which you can build up over time, and add these three new words to it during every reading time.
b. Write the words on cards and tape them up on the wall. 
c. Use the words in your conversation with your child. Think of your reading time not so much as a study period, but more like personal bonding time with your child.

7. Another variation you could try would be to read the story like a play, with you and your child reading the “lines” of the different characters.

During Everyday Conversation

Hearing new vocabulary words used in everyday conversation is essential to learning Chinese for children, but this can be challenging for parents who don’t speak it themselves. You could try to find a friend, a nanny or a tutor who can talk with your child in Chinese on a regular basis, or eating out in a Chinese restaurant from time to time and ordering in Chinese.

Additionally, here are some suggestions for helping with vocabulary-building during conversation. If you don’t speak Chinese yourself, you can find pointers for pronouncing the Pinyin words below, here .  

1. When learning Mandarin for children, try to use the words you’ve added to your word bank in your daily lives. On one day, for instance, you can focus on words in your word bank that describe feelings such as 快乐 (kuàilè) (happy) or  伤心 (shāngxīn) (sad). On another day, you can focus on action words such as (pǎo) (run) or 微笑 (wéixiào) (smile).

On yet another day, you can find words in your word bank for you to use in describing everyday activities such as: Taking a bath: 洗澡 (xǐzǎo) (bathing), 肥皂 (féizào) (soap), 洗头 (xǐ tóu) (shampoo)

    1. Eating lunch: 好吃 (hào chī) (yummy), (rè) (hot), (tāng) (soup)
    2. Brushing your teeth: 牙刷 (yáshuā) (toothbrush), 牙膏 (yágāo) (toothpaste)
    3. Going to school: 学校 (xuéxiào) (school), 校车 (xiàochē) (school bus), (yuǎn) (far)
    4. Doing homework: 功课 (gōngkè) (homework), 笔记本 (bǐjìběn) (notebook), 铅笔 (qiānbǐ) (pencil)

2. While you speak in Chinese to your children,

    1. Don’t forget to explain what new words mean by relating them to everyday experiences.
    2. Use the new words in different situations to reinforce their meaning.
    3. Act out what you say, such as rubbing your eyes for 我想睡觉 我困了 ( Wǒ xiǎng shuìjiào wǒ kùnle) (I want to sleep, I’m sleepy).
    4. When you ask a question, wait for your child to reply.
    5. Try to describe or comment on a situation instead of asking questions to elicit a response.
    6. Try to talk about what your child finds most interesting

During Play Time

Maintaining your child’s interest in Chinese is the key to consistency in learning new words. Now here are some fun suggestions for building up your child’s vocabulary. Try switching up the activities every so often to keep things interesting—before long, your child will be looking forward to what’s coming next.

1. Make “Word Families” by writing down a single-word topic (such as 运动 (sports), and then writing down related words such as 乒乓 ( pīngpāng)(table-tennis) , 篮球 (lánqiú) (basketball), 足球 (zúqiú) (soccer). If you have two or more children, you can turn it into a game by seeing who can write the most related words.  

This activity would be more appropriate for P4 children. For preschool children, you can ask them to just name the elements instead of writing them down.

2. Make and use flashcards by using the words you’ve added to your word bank during reading time. Write the words in Chinese on one side and the English translation on the reverse side. You can play a card game with these cards by laying out all the cards with the Chinese words facing up.

Point out a card and have your child give the meaning of the word, and then check the reverse side to see if the answer was correct. It might be fun to give a little prize (such as a treat or a snack) for every 10 correct answers or so.

3. Make Chinese labels for everything in a room (or even your entire home), such as (mén) (door), 窗口 (chuāngkǒu) (window) or 椅子 (yǐzi)(chair). Try turning it into a game where your child has a few minutes to stick pre-made labels on the correct things in the room.

4. Watch age-appropriate or family-oriented Chinese movies together, which will allow your child to pick up on how words are used in context, as well as grammar and pronunciation.

5. Sing Chinese vocabulary lists set to music . Singing is a fun and effective way to learn Mandarin for children as the music can help make it easier to remember words and their meanings.  

6. Play Chinese board games that are specially designed for learning vocabulary words such as word tiles, cards, and blocks. Aside from Chinese reading time, you might even try to organise a “Chinese game night” (complete with your child’s favourite snacks). Invite your child’s friends to play together.

Find Chinese stories for kids online that can go a long way toward increasing your child’s vocabulary. Sign up for Dudu, today.     

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