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Should I Use the Word “alternative” with My Child?

We all want our children to continue developing their vocabulary and learn increasingly complex words. Sometimes they make us give them a funny look over our mug of coffee when they’re playing in the backyard, point up to the sky and say “look at that fluffy cloud way up in the atmosphere!” …..atmosphere….? Where on earth did they learn that? We might tell our partner and both feel impressed with our child’s fancy words. But how do we get more of that? You might be hesitant to use higher-level words with your kids, as you think they will just go right over their heads. But we like to think of our kids’ brains as sponges; water doesn’t pass right over them – it soaks in.

Don’t be afraid of using brand new words

We are creatures of habit and we can get into a pattern of language with our children. We simplify our words; rather than saying “alternatively”, we might say “instead” or “do something else”. Simple language is great for littlies, especially ones we are supporting to speak for the first time, but for children in school, we really need to be pulling out shiny new words they have never heard before.


Do I need to explain each new word the first time I use it?

Direct instruction (clearly defining and explaining a word) can be very useful, particularly for very complex or obscure words. And of course, you can certainly explain it if your child has asked “what does that mean?” However, for most higher-level vocabulary, context and repetition are the most crucial. We need to remember that our children have learned language simply through hearing us speak it; we didn’t explain each and every word we’ve taught them. Think of your own learning; do you always remember that definition you read on Google of a new word? Or has it been more useful to hear someone else use it appropriately in a sentence? Using a word correctly in context and across many different contexts is one of the best teachers in terms of children learning what a word means and where it belongs. Then they have to hear it many, many times.


The 5 Rep Rule

You may have heard this rule from your Speechie already; it’s something we use each and every day. We do tend to use it most often with late talkers, but it can be equally useful for older children learning complex vocabulary. It’s as simple as using the word 5 times within a short space of time. For example, use of the word “alternative” within the 5 Rep Rule would look like this: “my laptop ran out of charge today, so I had to find an alternative. Luckily, my friend offered me an easy alternative and let me borrow her laptop. Alternatively, if she hadn’t, I would have had to use my tablet, which wouldn’t have been as good an alternative because it’s a lot smaller. What else do you think I could have used as an alternative to my laptop?” Out of breath? Cringing over how many times you just read the word “alternative”? This does sometimes feel unnatural and like you’re speaking crazy talk, but do you see how much information it is giving your child about the new word? You won’t even need to directly define it for them as they’ve likely gleaned the definition from what you’ve said already. Of course, in a conversation, you don’t need to say all this in one breath. Your child can comment in between and it can follow the flow of conversation naturally; the key is to give those 5 repetitions as close to one another as you can.


Relevance matters

All that being said, we want to be teaching words that are relevant to a child’s life at that time. If I told you: “did you know a ‘monomial’ is an algebraic expression consisting of a single term?” You’d probably stare at me blankly and move on with your life. Just as we follow their lead when children are little and we are teaching language through play, we want to continue that approach when they are older. Tap into what they are learning in science; maybe they are learning about water, so you can point out the sauce bubbling on the stove for dinner and said “look how much liquid has evaporated!” They might even reply with “we learned about that in school!” Chat about their interests as well; maybe they have a particular subject or YouTube sensation or TV show they are into right now. Words don’t discriminate, so they can be applied and taught anywhere, about anything.

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