Read time: 7 minutes

Tricks Of The Trade: Strategies To Increase Vocabulary (& A Pocket Thesaurus)

Jun 21 / Laura Gillingham

“Woah! Look at the ginormous egg!” My three-year-old son bellows from our cart towards a banner of human-sized eggs at our local grocery store.

In a desperate bid to confirm that I am listening, he yanks the collar of my shirt with his cookie-crumb-filled hands, which causes my head to nearly collide with his. As I lurch forward, I make a sound best described as a mix between a duck and a cow in distress.

Several grocery store patrons look in our direction in response to my son’s intent on gaining my attention while nearly strangling me in the process. Yeeeshhh. My face feels hot, and I dart down the nearest aisle.

I bite my lip, making unwanted eye contact with a white-haired woman perusing the yogurt section, and whisper to my son, “Yes, you’re right; it is humongous! It's ginormous! Those are humongous eggs!”

“Yeah! Hughnungus! Ginormous!” My ecstatic son shouts back at me, his spit landing in my eye as a nearby pair of kidless shoppers exchange perplexed expressions. I manage to sheepishly pry his sticky, snack-stained hands off my shirt and continue our journey through the store.

Three-year-olds are a challenge when they sleep. When awake, they are formidable. In a grocery store, they are herculean.

As I often do, I overthink my seemingly innocent interaction with my son. I’ll blame my training as a speech-language pathologist, but it's probably just my genetic disposition towards the anxious.

I ponder to myself whether “ginormous” is an actual word or if he just learned it from me quoting the movie “Elf.”

Great, now I’m teaching him fake words, I think to myself as my son continues to point his sweet chubby fingers at every food item and signage we pass.

“That’s A LOT of cakes, mama! Oh oh! Look at all the Mac and Cheeses! Wow, lotsa water! I so ffffffffff-irsty! Look! Look! Another ginormous egg!”

“Mmmhmmm.” I attempt to place a box of mac and cheese into the cart without his hands grabbing it.

I am unsuccessful, but he’s so pleased and wide-grinned that I allow him to hold the box and trudge forward.

Fun fact: ginormous was first used as military slang in the 1940’s and was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2007 - so no, not originally from “Elf,” and yes, it is a “real” word, depending on what you count as the standard for a real word.

Here’s the thing, ginormous is a real word, dictionary or not. At least, it is to my son. In all of his sticky, animated, unabashedly self-confident three-year-old ways, it’s real.

As a speech therapist and a mom, I say use that imagination to your advantage.

I say, lean in.

Language is a funny little thing. It certainly won’t be bent to whatever we may wish it to be, and yet it proves so malleable when agreeable. Capitalizing on a child’s current level of language vocabulary and shaping into a more complex novel vocabulary can yield profound results in the therapy room and beyond if the moment is seized.

In essence, language begets more language. A complex, rich vocabulary is one of the building blocks for creating captivating inner worlds and compelling storytelling. So, how do you do it?

Modify the auditory sandwich.

From a therapeutic perspective, the modified auditory sandwich is a fantastic tool. I start with novel vocabulary, then emphasize the connection to known vocabulary, and end with the novel vocabulary to reinforce. Put simply, sandwich the vocabulary.

The best part is that you can start and end with known vocabulary, creating a connection between vocabulary terms.

Here’s an example: If a child says, “Go-go!” to signal they are dancing to the music, you, as the therapist or caregiver, can say, “Yes! You are dancing to the music! Go-go! Look at you dancing!”

The word “dancing” is the novel word, and “go-go” isthe mastered phrase. This strategy can apply to more complex vocabulary - like ginormous.

For children who are deaf and hard of hearing, this strategy can be especially helpful because it allows for the novel vocabulary to be presented at both the beginning and end of a phrase, which is easier to detect auditorily than the middle of a phrase.

Furthermore, the mastered vocabulary is still present, allowing the child to connect the meaning of the novel and mastered words in real time and make inferences about the situation at hand.

At the end of the day, being cognizant of using novel vocabulary is a great first step, so don’t overthink it, and have fun!

Can you use that in a sentence, Alex?

Claire finishes pumping her gas, careful to avoid the sheet of ice near the front wheel of her car when making her way back to the driver’s side.

Her hand is on the door of her car when she hears a croaky voice behind her, “You’ll need to watch out for the ice, bad things have been known to happen…”

Claire turns to find no one except the bitter whistle of cold air. Unnerved, she careens her neck to get a view beyond a thick concrete pillar next to her car. A grim gas station employee in an oversized, muted winter coat is glaring back behind the pillar with eyes as wild as their billowing hair in the winter wind. Claire startles, and somehow manages not to yelp.

“Oh,” Claire says as she stumbles back into her car, smiling in feigned gratitude to avoid upsetting the individual further, “Thanks for the heads-up!”

The employee grunts dismissively and shuffles off, a snarl plastered to their face. Claire shudders. She enters the car, and her ice-cold hands fumble for the keys as she shivers.

“Her tone was ominous,” Claire says absentmindedly to herself. She turns on the heat to full blast, focusing on finding her daughter’s gymnastics club on her phone map.

“What does obinoss mean?” Claire’s five-year-old daughter, Jane, pipes in from her car seat in the back row. Jane’s voice thrusts Claire back to reality, distracting her from thoughts of slipping on ice and disgruntled employees. 

“Oh, her voice was ominous,” Claire responds, emphasizing the final word in the hopes that Jane understands, and quickly.

Claire is exhausted and can feel the bags growing under her eyes from a long night awake with Jane’s one-year-old sister, Emma. Her patience is as thin as the ice outside her car. She doesn’t have the time to answer a million questions.

Jane, unfortunately for Claire, does not understand.


Claire repeats. Jane still does not understand. Claire repeats again, squinting to find the gymnastic address on her phone.

Do I need new glasses, or am I just getting old? Claire thinks to herself as she looks at her device, her brows furrowed into deep creases. Probably both.

Jane, of course, is still monumentally unsatisfied with Claire’s distracted response. Claire’s phone buzzes - the gymnastics club. “Great. Looks like we’re already late,” Claire rolls her eyes.

“HUH?” Jane shouts, “I don’t understand.”

Claire’s finger slips, deleting her intended destination on the map which requires her to restart the process. She grunts and sets the phone down with a thunk on the dash.

“Om-min-nous,” Claire emphasizes again, her voice tight and forced. She feels her jaw clench. Why does she have so many questions? I don’t have time for this.

“Yes mom. I know. What does OM-MIN-NOUS mean?” Jane says with perfect articulation, exactly matching Claire’s edgy tone. Do I really sound like that? Yikes. Claire winces. Gentle reminder to…not sound like that.

Claire pauses, sighs, and contemplates explaining this concept to her daughter. First, Claire ignores her buzzing phone, the weather, the gymnastics, the possibility, no, reality that they’re late, and turns to face her daughter.

Jane is a five-year-old, after all. Claire may as well be Jane’s walking dictionary. Jane’s head is cocked in anticipation of Claire’s response, and finally, finally, Claire permits herself to be present.

It isn’t every day that someone thinks you are the smartest person on the planet with the answers to every question in the universe. What’s the answer though? Claire thinks, tapping a finger on the seat next to her.

Then it hits her - context. She needs to use the word in a sentence that provides clues so Jane understands.

“Oh, her voice was ominous. Like a dark, gloomy storm cloud is ominous. It shows that something dangerous might happen,” Claire says.

“Oh!” Jane says, her face lighting up with understanding. “Mom, you better get us to gymnastics, this weather is pretty ominous!”

Claire feels her face soften.

“Sounds good,” Claire says and smiles at Jane.

As simple as that, using a word or a phrase in a sentence with context clues by relating it to another experience of the child can help with vocabulary understanding. Go ahead and try it! I promise it isn’t too ominous; well, maybe it is.

Get a thesaurus. No, seriously.

It is critical to learn, say, and practice as many new words as possible. If you can think of a word, ten more words probably have an even more nuanced way of relaying information in that exact moment.

I find a pocket thesaurus very useful in a pinch, but I’ve even been known to ask my colleagues, “What’s another name for big?” If my brain is working to locate a better word. Oh, wait, ginormous.

Even with a pocket thesaurus, there are so many available words that it can be overwhelming in a therapy session for the therapist trying to generate novel vocabulary. As conversational turns and connections are critical to language acquisition, it’s essential to seek opportunities for constant exposure to novel vocabulary.

A great way to find new words to model is by focusing on the language surrounding emotions. I like to use the feelings wheel as a tool to use more specific language around feelings.

As I narrate the emotional experiences of the students I work with, I like to reference this chart to utilize more nuanced words. While a child may be “happy,” they may also be inquisitive, curious, confident, or optimistic. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of reading books that you enjoy and searching for new words.

Putting children’s literature aside, seeking novel vocabulary in your own reading is essential. For the longest time, I thought I could be a storyteller without emphasizing deep, intentional, studied reading. As I learn more about the storytelling process and grow in my craft, I am reminded of how critical it is to read and strive to learn through the process.

So here’s to success with vocabulary. Better yet, to flourishing, prospering, and thriving in the beauty and complexity of language.

Here’s to leaning in.

© Artem Podrez from Pexels

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About the blogger

Laura Gillingham

Laura Gillingham is a storyteller, Speech-Language Pathologist and LSLS Certified Auditory Verbal Therapist.

As a young girl growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, Laura created expansive, fantastical worlds for anyone who would listen. Her stories opened her eyes to an enchanting discovery – vivid storytelling is a catalyst that transforms even the most mundane into the extraordinary.

Today, Laura continues to use the magic of storytelling to promote age-specific auditory skill development and a love of reading through her novels, carefully crafted therapy materials, advocacy, and education. 

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