4 reasons kids have trouble learning new words

By Tara Drinks

At a glance

  • Kids learn new words by hearing them or reading them. 

  • Kids develop vocabulary skills at different rates. 

  • You can help your child learn new words at home.

Say it’s almost bedtime and your child picks out a book to read together. A few pages in, your child stops, points to one of the words, and asks what ship means. You explain that a ship is a big boat as you mentally add it to the list of words you’re surprised your child doesn’t know. 

As babies and toddlers, kids learn new words by listening to people talk. Kids also learn new words by hearing them read aloud in books and — as they get older — by reading new words on their own. 

Kids develop at different rates. This includes the language and reading skills needed to learn new words. Some kids just need more time. Others may have specific challenges related to building vocabulary.

Here are four common reasons kids have trouble learning new words.

1. Limited exposure to words 

It’s important for kids to be surrounded by a variety of words as they develop. The more words kids are exposed to, the stronger their vocabulary skills become. This includes being exposed to spoken and written words.

Just talking with your child is one way to build vocabulary. When you have conversations, try to include new words and ideas. Maybe you saw a news story about someone running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Tell your child about it and explain what words like marathon and continent mean. 

Reading together every day also helps kids build vocabulary. When reading aloud, stop at new words and define them. And have your child practice thinking about what new words mean, even when reading alone. This helps your child use context clues to figure out what new words mean.

No time to read to your child? Try these ideas.

2. Trouble with language in general 

Some kids struggle to learn new vocabulary words because they struggle with language in general. They might have trouble expressing their thoughts and ideas using spoken or written words. This is called expressive language. Kids who struggle with expressive language tend to speak vaguely and use words like stuff and thing a lot.

Some kids have trouble with receptive language. It’s hard for them to understand what they’re hearing or reading. And some kids struggle with both receptive and expressive language.

Challenges with language tend to get noticed early, often when kids are in preschool.

3. Trouble with reading 

Trouble with reading can make it hard for kids to learn new words. For example, struggling readers may read so slowly or be so focused on trying to sound out each word that it’s hard for them to think about what the words mean. 

These struggles can be so frustrating that kids start to avoid reading altogether. Less time spent reading means less time being exposed to new words and ideas.

But there are ways to encourage kids and expose them to new words and ideas. Try asking questions while reading with your child. This helps kids make connections between what they’re reading and what they’re thinking. 

4. Developmental delays

Developmental delays are more than just being “slower to develop” or “a little behind.” It means a child is continually behind in gaining the skills expected by a certain age. 

Kids who are behind in multiple areas, like problem-solving and motor skills, may also have trouble learning new words. They may need more repetition to learn new words or help from a speech therapist.

If you’re concerned about your child’s vocabulary, talk with the teacher or your child’s health care provider. They can help you tell if what you’re seeing is common for kids the same age or if your child needs extra support to learn new words. 

Key takeaways

  • Trouble with reading or with language in general can make it hard for kids to build vocabulary.

  • It’s important to expose kids to new words and ideas. 

  • Having conversations and reading together can help kids learn new words.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Tara Drinks is an associate editor at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.