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Concept development and vocabulary

Children​ learn new words at an incredibly fast rate.

The most important predictor of vocabulary learning is the number of words that children hear from adults (for example during interactions, conversations, play, book reading).

As children learn new words, they begin to understand and describe increasingly complex concepts (for example concepts to do with space, size, quantity, categories and time).

The importance of concept development and vocabulary

The words in our vocabulary are the building blocks for understanding and expressing ideas. As children are exposed to complex language (refer to the Grammar section), they begin to use more advanced vocabulary. They also begin to use more complex words to explain concepts, describe their observations, and make predictions.

Children’s vocabulary and concept development is dependent on consistent, nurturing and interacting learning experiences with adults and peers. Children need to have a large and varied vocabulary that continually grows.

Thus, concept development and vocabulary are key components for language learning. Developing these skills can pave the way for learning in language, the arts, sciences, technology, and mathematics.

Key developmental milestones

The following ages and stages (adapted from Munro and McGregor, 2017) are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but does not limit the expectations for every child (refer to VEYLDF Practice Principle: High expectations for every childExternal Link ). It is always important to understand children’s development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age.

There is wide variation in the first words that children produce. However, data from English-speaking countries reflect the following general milestones for spoken (expressive) vocabulary:

  • 12 months: 2 words plus mummy and daddy (or equivalent in languages other than English)
  • 18 months: 10-50 words
  • 2 years: 300 words
  • 2.5 years: 450 words
  • 3 years: 1000 words
  • 4 years: 2000 words
  • 5 years: 5000 plus words
  • 17 years: 36 000 to 136 000 words.

The words that children tend to say first are naming words (Nouns and Proper Nouns). Then action words (Verbs) are the second earliest type of word. Other words which are learnt early on are a few examples of modifiers (for example ‘more’), and personal-social phrases (for example ‘please’, ‘no’).

Word types

There are eight main types of words. Each word type is learned at different stages, and do different “jobs” when used in sentences. The speed and order that children learn word types is dependent on age, but also on their language-learning experiences. Children need to learn different word types, so they can start building their own sentences.

These include:

  • nouns (including Proper Nouns) - for example, Mum dog idea rainbow question Alex
  • pronouns - for example, I you they him she this these some their his myself ourselves each other
  • determiners - for example, the a an her their our those this that many more neither another
  • adjectives - for example, long pointy childish imaginary sisterly
  • verbs - for example, run play decide sorted thinking
  • adverbs - for example, slowly foolishly very mostly
  • prepositions - for example, in at on off into onto towards to about as with
  • conjunctions - for example, and or but because whenever after before.

Nouns, adjectives, and verbs are the most commonly encountered word types.

But there are also prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, determiners, and conjunctions.


Concepts are the ‘’big ideas’’ that children learn as they engage in a range of experiences.

For example, a baby drinks milk. As the baby grows older, the baby drinks water as well. The concept of ‘liquids that can be drunk’ expands as the child drinks different liquids.

Later, the concept that some things can be drunk but others cannot adds to the concept of liquids. This also shows how concept development supports reasoning skills.

Encouraging concept development in children is an important step in building knowledge of the arts, mathematics, science, and technology, and other aspects of everyday life.

Understanding the concepts—for example ‘’measurement’’—needs to come before learning the procedures of measurement.

Helping children to learn the words that represent the concept helps children to learn procedures later on:

  • spatial - for example, inside/outside behind/in front around/through side/middle between/either side of
  • directional - for example, in/out up/down
  • numerical - for example, numbers and counting once twice
  • ordinal - for example, first, second, third … last next one by one
  • shapes - for example, circle triangle rectangle curve straight pointy
  • measurement - for example, describing items according to size, weight, volume, height, length, speed, temperature etc.
    This will involve comparison: for example big/bigger/biggest/ tall/taller/tallest
  • pattern and structure - for example, patterns on clothes, in pictures, music, speech (rhyming)
  • temporal - for example, before/after, while/during, today/yesterday/tomorrow, 10:00am/half past two days of week/months of year etc.
  • categorical - for example, types of fruit, clothes, vehicles, animals, plants, actions, shapes, feelings etc.
  • comparative - for example, big/bigger/biggest/tall/taller/tallest
  • descriptive - for example, describing items according to colour, pattern, texture, size, smell, taste, hardness/density etc.

Everyday interactions and planned experiences can be opportunities for learning about different concepts, and the words we can use to describe them.

Word relationships

Another way to look at vocabulary is to think about how words relate to other words. Semantics is the study of word meanings. Semantic relationships are the ways that words are related to each other. Semantic knowledge is an important part of children’s language development, that helps them understand and express more complex concepts and ideas.

Here are some examples of types of word/semantic relationships.


  • Words can be put into categories (for example foods, emotions, buildings).
  • Many categories also have subcategories
  • Fruit - apple, banana, watermelon
  • Apples - granny smith, golden delicious
  • Emotions - happiness anger sadness surprise
  • Happiness - joy delight.


A pair of words with opposite meanings, for example:

  • hot/cold
  • fast/slow
  • big/small.

Antonyms can be gradable (on a continuum):

  • you can use very or not very on these words
  • young/old, long/short, empty/full.

They can be complementary:

  • these antonyms mean one thing or another (there isn’t an in between)
  • for example sleep/wake,right/wrong, alive/dead.

Or they can be relational:

  • these opposites are about how concepts are related to each other
  • for example parent/child, brother/sister, doctor/patient, predator/prey.


Words that have the same or similar meaning to each other, for example:

  • hop/bounce/leap/spring/bound
  • nice/good/kind/lovely/fine
  • yummy/good/tasty/delicious.

Theory to practice

Learning vocabulary is a continual process of language and literacy development, which begins in the early years of life, and continues through schooling and beyond. .

Knowledge of vocabulary meanings affects children’s abilities to understand and use words appropriately during the language acts of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
- Sinatra, Zygouris-Coe, and Dasinger (2011, p. 333).

It is crucial that children have rich, implicit and explicit opportunities to learn new, and more advanced vocabulary.

Vocabulary knowledge “influences the complexities and nuances of children’s thinking … and how well they will understand printed texts" (Sinatra, Zygouris-Coe, and Dasinger, 2011, p. 333). Having more complex language allows children to make meaning from what people say, and engage with new concepts. These are relevant for early numeracy, science, and literacy (and other disciplinary) knowledge, as well as for equipping children to share their own thoughts and feelings.

According to Cambourne’s Conditions of Learning (1988) and brain-research principles, children’s cognitive and language development is maximised when they are provided with meaningful opportunities to engage in independent and shared discussions, and exposed to many different forms of text that are appropriate to their world (Rushton, Eitelgeorge and Zickafoose, 2003).

A literature-based and print-rich classroom allows for different forms of texts that are created by children and reflects the real world … providing ample opportunity [for children] to see and experience the language.
- Rushton, Eitelgeorge and Zickafoose, 2003, p.13.

Evidence base

Research shows that when young children have meaningful interactions and are exposed to lots of words, they quickly develop wider vocabularies. The landmark research by Hart and Risley (1995) revealed the importance of interacting with children and exposing them to a high quantity and quality of language learning experiences. They also demonstrated that having more advanced vocabularies in the early years led to greater educational achievement in the middle years of primary school (Hart and Risley, 1995). Later research has echoed this importance of adult interacting for children’s vocabulary and general oral language development (for example Weisleder and Fernald, 2013).

It is important to embed opportunities for children to engage with various concepts (including shapes and spatial thinking). This enables children to “rehearse” the language needed to explore various concepts (Cohrssen, de Quadros-Wander, Page, and Klarin, 2017).

Making sure to pause is an important strategy during concept development experiences. Pausing gives children a chance to think about more complex concepts, and allows educators to listen closely to children, and respond to them more supportively (Cohrssen, Church, and Tayler, 2014). Refer to the teaching practices for interacting with others for more pedagogical strategies.

Getting started

First words

  • Use lots of language with children in every interaction
  • Turn everyday situations into opportunities for discussion and description
  • Repeat and reward each time a child attempts a word, giving them attention and affection.

Concept development

  • Explore and describe the objects, movements and qualities that are around you
  • Help children to explain their thoughts and feelings with words
  • Incorporate counting, naming, and describing into everyday activities
  • Brainstorm members of categories (for example who can think of types of vehicles?)
  • What kind of word is that? categorise vocabulary as they come up in interactions (for example run skip glide prance are all ways of moving)
  • Show how It fits: use objects/pictures (to represent words/concepts) and sort words to categories and subcategories.


  • Point out antonyms when they arise in conversation or book reading
  • Play opposites! play words games where you guess the antonym (for example go/come, do/undo, quietly/loudly)
  • Always introduce antonyms (opposites) in their pairs (for example hot/cold, big/little, nice/mean, in front/behind).


  • Word finder: encourage children to think deeply and try to come up with other ways of saying something (for example how else can we say “big”? What’s another word for ….?)
  • Word of the day: introduce new words explicitly, discuss their meaning, and model using the word in your language throughout the day
  • Word maps: explore how words are related to others
  • Talk it up: incorporate more advanced vocabulary in your interactions with children.

Outcome 4: learning

Children develop a range of skills and processes such as problem solving, inquiry, experimentation, hypothesising, researching and investigating:

  • create and use representation to organise, record and communicate mathematical ideas and concepts.

Children transfer and adapt what they have learnt from one context to another:

  • make connections between experiences, concepts and processes.

Outcome 5: communication

Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes:

  • interact with others to explore ideas and concepts, clarify and challenge thinking, negotiate and share new understandings
  • demonstrate an increasing understanding of measurement and number using vocabulary to describe size, length, volume, capacity and names of numbers
  • use language to communicate thinking about quantities to describe attributes of objects and collections, and to explain mathematical ideas.

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts:

  • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter-sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured.

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:

  • begin to sort, categorise, order and compare collections and events and attributes of objects and materials in their social and natural worlds.

Experiences plans and videos

Early communicators (birth - 18 months)

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

Learning foci and teaching practices

  • Cohrssen, C., Church, A., and Tayler, C. (2014). Pausing for learning: Responsive engagement in mathematics activities in early childhood settings. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39(4), 95-102.

    Cohrssen, C., Church, A., and Tayler, C. (2014). Purposeful pauses: Teacher talk in early childhood mathematics activities. International Journal of Early Years Education. DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2014.900476.

    Cohrssen, C., de Quadros-Wander, B., Page, J., and Klarin, S. (2017). Between the big treesExternal Link : A project-based approach to investigating shape and spatial thinking in a kindergarten program. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 42(1), 94-104.

    Hart, B. M., and Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

    Munro, N., and McGregor, K. (2015) Semantics, in S. McLeod and J. McCormack (Eds.), Introduction to speech, language and literacy. South Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Oxford University Press. (pp. 181-230).

    Rushton, S. P., Eitelgeorge, J., and Zickafoose, R. (2003). Connecting Brian Cambourne’s conditions of learning theory to brain/mind principles: Implications for early childhood Educators. Early Childhood Education Journal, 31(1), 11-21. doi: 10.1023/A:1025128600850.

    Sinatra, R., Zygouris-Coe, V., and Dasinger, S., 2011, Preventing a vocabulary lag: What lessons are learned from research. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 28(4), 333-334.

    Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016) Victorian early years learning and development framework (PDF, 1.14MB)External Link (VEYLDF). Retrieved 3 March 2018.

    Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016) Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F-10External Link . Retrieved 3 March 2018.

    Weisleder, A., and Fernald, A. (2013). Talking to children matters: Early language experience strengthens processing and builds vocabulary. Psychological Science, 24(11), 2143-2152.

    Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., and Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd ed.). New York: The Guildford Press.

    Borovsky, A., Elman, J. L., and Fernald, A. (2012). Knowing a lot for one's age: Vocabulary skill and not age is associated with anticipatory incremental sentence interpretation in children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 112(4), 417-436.

    Taylor, C. L., Christensen, D., Lawrence, D., Mitrou, F., and Zubrick, S. R. (2013). Risk factors for children's receptive vocabulary development from four to eight years in the Longitudinal Study of Australian ChildrenExternal Link . Plos One, 8(9).

Reviewed 14 April 2023

Literacy teaching toolkit for early childhood

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