Why are verbs so important and why should we work on them?
One of the most common vocabulary goals I often work on with younger children (and some older children) is building a child’s lexicon of verbs. Verbs are the words that talk about our actions, or what we do, and they are a very important part of our vocabulary. Without them, we would not be able to create and use sentences because there is always at least one verb in every sentence. If you think about it, I’ve already mentioned 10 different verbs (seeming, being (are/is), working, building, talking, doing, creating, using, thinking and mentioning) in this paragraph alone!
Verbs are also important, in that they are considered fundamentally important in how we learn many of the rules of grammar and how we use it. In fact, a recent study (Hadley et al, 2016) showed that you can predict children who will have more advanced grammatical skills at 30 months by the size of their verb vocabularies at 24 months.
Yet many late-talking children have considerable difficulty acquiring and using verbs. Part of the reason for this may be because nouns (people and objects) are things we see and touch making it more concrete and tangible for young children as they learn the words, where as verbs are more abstract and relate to passing events.
So how many verbs should my toddler have?
Typically developing 2 year olds generally have in the vicinity of 40-50 verbs, while late-talking toddlers at this age on average have fewer than three verbs. This is a dramatic difference and can have a significant impact on language development, as children are lacking the vocabulary required to link words and build sentences. It is important therefore, that if your toddler has a limited verb lexicon, that they are given support to build more verbs into their vocabularies.
What can I do to help my child learn more verbs?
Fortunately there are many things we can do to encourage our children to learn a wide range of verbs, and the evidence to back our actions! Here are some suggestions for supporting your child to acquire new verbs into their vocabularies.
1. Encourage your child to imitate your actions (where it’s safe too – only pretend driving and chopping at this age!!). This is because the research shows that young children learn verbs better when they copy the actions themselves, rather than just watching someone else do that action (Rosebery et al, 2009). Another study found that young children (30 months or younger) learned verbs better when watching a video paired with live social interaction, as oppose to just watching a video by itself. Therefore, the evidence suggests that with young children, verbs are best taught by watching you in action, and getting your child to copy your actions too!
2. Use different examples. Providing lots of different examples for a particular verb gives your child a rich understanding of the meaning of the verb, which will support verb acquisition. If you are saying ‘cut’, give diverse examples of what can be cut e.g. cutting hair, cutting paper, cutting cake etc. This provides a varied and rich knowledge of the verb and will help your child understand the meaning and how it can be used.
3. Provide rich syntax. This refers to the words surrounding the verb you use. A recent study (Arunachalam and Waxman, 2014) looked at how toddlers best learned verbs. To assess this, they taught nonsense verbs to describe an action in pictures. They presented the information in different ways (sparse syntax or rich syntax) to two groups of toddlers. Sparse syntax meant the verb was presented separately to the other information provided (e.g. ‘Let’s see a boy and a balloon. Lets see pilking!’), while rich syntax embeds the verb in a syntactically rich sentence (e.g. ‘Let’s see a boy pilking a balloon’). The results of the study found that the toddlers in the rich syntax group were able to learn the action associated with the made up verb ‘pilking’ while the other group had significantly greater difficulty. This shows us that giving context and using new verbs in rich sentences helps children learn new verbs.
4. Model a diverse range of verbs. Recent research by (Hsu et al, 2017) found that the diversity of verbs presented to young children is more important than the quantity of verbs presented, and that diversity of verb input was the most significant predictor of children using verbs spontaneously in their language six months later. This suggests that it is not how many times you repeat verbs, but the wide range of verbs presented over a period that predict how many verbs a child will use spontaneously.
So now you know to encourage imitation, use a wide range of verbs and provide rich language – what activities might encourage these strategies?
What are some great activities for working on verbs?
The best way to target verbs is through play, as well as exposure to real-life activities– here are some of my favourite activities for targeting verbs with my clients:
1. Simon Says is a great activity for teaching new action words as it is a game where the focus is on imitation. Examples of verbs you can use while playing could include (but are not limited to): jump, clap, hop, stand, sit, dance, laugh, pat, rub, touch, wiggle, shake, wave, twist, hold etc.
2. Tea-party play! Most children love tea-party play and getting teddy or a doll to do different actions. You can have your child copy you and then get them to show teddy what to do! Verbs you can target might include: eat, drink, pour, chew, cut, chop, blow, tip, bite, sleep, wash, dry, stir, mix etc.
3. Planes, trains and automobiles! Lots of actions can be modelled with toy transport, such as pull, push, go, stop, drive, launch, fly, fall, help, lift, tip, squash, crash, smash, float, sink, drop etc Try to remember to use a wide range of verbs during this activity rather than just one or two. Having a list before you play can help you to remember what new vocabulary you might be targeting.
4. Playing shops/café. My kids love playing shops and the opportunities for targeting a wide range of verbs are endless. Possibilities could include: buy, sell, pay, give, take, want, make, bring, like, eat, drink, have, wash, dry, order, finish, start… and many more! You can also drink a range of drinks or eat a range of foods which provides lots of different examples of use for a single verb.
5. Make your own books. Kids absolutely adore reading books about themselves, so grab a camera and get your child to do lots of different actions. Print them out and place them in a dollar-shop photo album and you have a ready made verb book you can take with you wherever you go! Start by ‘reading’ the book to your child but it won’t be long before the roles will be reversed and you can be read a bedtime story.
6. Finally, there are some apps that give good opportunities for targeting verbs if you actively participate in playing the app with you child. My favourite apps for this are the My Playhome apps (home/hospital/school) and the Toca Boca Toca Life apps (e.g. Farm, Office, Vacation). These apps allow you to manipulate characters to do a wide range of different activities and actions, and many of these might be things that children might not be able to do everyday (eg. milk a cow, fly a plane, cut someone’s hair, or xray a patient!) However, it is important to note that the app itself doesn’t target verbs – it requires an adult to play with the child and model or talk about what the characters are doing or going to do. Encourage a dialogue and descriptions out loud of all the funny things your character is doing. If you find a child struggles to talk because they are so engrossed in the app, then this probably isn’t the best activity for targeting verbs and may be better to try one of the activities listed above.
I’m sure there are many, many more activities for encouraging and modelling action words, but these are some of my favourites. So have fun and get into action and your child will be learning new verbs in no time! What are your favourite action games?