Young Children Can Learn New Vocabulary from Shared Book Reading

Based on a talk given by Dr. Monique Sénéchal of Carleton University.

Shared reading can be a source of entertainment, emotional contact, as well as learning. Children between the age of 18 months and 6 years acquire, on average, 5 new words a day. Research finding from my lab show that young children can learn between 1 to 3 new word from shared book reading.


Vocabulary measured early is one of the best predictors of eventual success in reading. Consider the following finding from a longitudinal study conduct in my lab. In this study, we found that vocabulary measured at the beginning of kindergarten predicted reading comprehension at the end of grade 3 after controlling for parent education, non-verbal intelligence, phoneme awareness, and grade 1 reading. Given the predictive relation between kindergarten vocabulary and grade 3 reading, it becomes of interest to understand how we can promote early vocabulary development.


Two types of vocabulary are considered in the present report : spoke and comprehension vocabulary. Spoken vocabulary refers to the words children can actually produce and is often labeled expressive vocabulary. In contrast, comprehension vocabulary refers to the words that children can understand, but not necessarily produce, and is often labeled receptive vocabulary. This distinction is useful because different factors might facilitate the acquisition of the two types of vocabulary.


The findingsfrom three experimental studies with children between the ages of 3 and 5 , and one intervention study with children with language delays can be summarized succinctly under four headings:

1. The benefits of repeated readings. Children comprehended and spoke more new words after listening to three repeated readings of picture books than after a single of two exposures to the books. In fact, children did not learn to say new words after listening to a single or two renditions of the books.

2. The benefits of active involvement during repeated readings. Children comprehended and spoke new words when they were actively involved during the repeated book readings. Answering requests to label new words was particularly helpful.

3. Developmental and individual differences. Older children learned more from book reading events than younger children. Five-year-old children learned more from book reading than 4-year-old children and 4-year-olds learned more than 3-year-old children. In addition, children with a larger vocabulary learned more during book reading than children with a smaller vocabulary. Younger children and children with a smaller vocabulary may need more exposures to the same book to learn at the same level as other children.

4. The role of early childhood educators. Early childhood educators could implement repeated book readings during circle time with 8 children or less. Most important, children with vocabulary delays, whose early childhood educators actively involved them during repeated readings, improved their spoken vocabulary more than children whose teachers involved them less during the book readings.

In closing you are encouraged to use books as a source of fun and learning for children. You can use simple techniques, such as asking labeling questions during repeated readings, to enhance the vocabulary of young children.

***** Additional information can be found here. Monique Sénéchal is a member of the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. ( She is associate professor of psychology at Carleton University. The research presented was funded by SSHRC (