Toddler talk: Ways to encourage language development

How you talk with your child can help expand vocabulary and understanding

A dad talks with his toddler son on a couch

Learning to communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, is an important skill for toddlers to learn to connect with people and express themselves. A delay in language development can cause a toddler frustration in not being able to communicate his or her needs.

From the beginning

Speech development actually begins before that first word. In the first six months, infants may smile or noticeably respond to your voice and cry differently depending on their need.

By the time children have reached their first birthday, they typically respond to limited verbal commands and make sounds of varying degrees. Those sounds continue to increase over the months and change to express feelings. Your child may respond to changes in your voice and notice the noises made by toys and music.

Toddlers’ first words emerge between 10 to 15 months old as they begin to identify objects, such as “ba” for bottle. Toddlers also start using gestures and expressions to communicate their needs (pointing or intentional pouting looks, for example).

After the first year

Between age 1 and 2, you will see significant changes in language development. These may include:

  • Recognizing an object or picture and being able to point to it or say the word
  • Recognizing familiar names and objects and being able to repeat them
  • Following the directions you give if your instructions are simple
  • Speaking up to 75 words and possibly using simple phrases
  • Getting upset at your inability to understand what he/she wants
  • Enjoying being read to and able to sit and listen to one or more books at a time
  • Asking short questions such as “Go bye-bye?”
  • Following your directions without the need to see with gestures

Tips to encourage toddler talk

Help your toddler develop communication skills:

  • Use a high-pitched, singsong voice. This helps get and keep your toddler’s attention while you talk.
  • Demonstrate facial expressions and gestures. Your nonverbal communication can say more than your verbal words. Role model with your toddler how to effectively use expressions and gestures.
  • Encourage two-way communication. When your toddler uses sounds, words, or gestures, be sure to respond and take turns in “conversation.” This back and forth is important in building communication skills.
  • Introduce your toddler to rhythm and rhyme with music. Rhyming teaches your toddler how language works and helps your toddler make predictions about what might come next.
  • Expand on what was said. If your toddler says “dog,” say, “Yes, that is a big dog!”
  • Narrate what your toddler is doing. “You are stacking those blocks so high.”

Build a confident communicator

Encourage your toddler by modeling how to talk, how to listen and how to express feelings.

  • Talk with and listen to your toddler. Get down on your toddler’s level. Talk and wait for your toddler to respond with body language or babbling. Keep the conversation going.
  • Narrate daily routines. Say things like, “Here you go into the bathtub. Your arms, legs and tummy are getting all wet.” This helps your toddler connect words to objects and actions.
  • Read together. Reading can simply mean describing pictures without using the written words. Choose books with large, colorful pictures, and encourage your toddler to point to and name familiar objects.
  • Help your toddler develop a “feelings” vocabulary. Provide words to match your toddler’s experience. “You’re sad because Daddy left for work.”
  • Ask your toddler to help you. For example, “Please get your shoes for me.”
  • Give clear, simple directions. Say things like, “Go get the ball by the chair.”

It’s expected for toddlers to struggle to enunciate words clearly. By age 2, your toddler will know more words, but the words probably will be understandable only about half of the time. Keep encouraging your child to express himself or herself.

If you are concerned about your toddler’s language development, consult with your toddler’s health care provider.

Posted In Children's, Health Information, Parenting