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Teaching Toddlers to Talk

By Caroline Hunter, MS Speech Language Pathologistoto---blog-4.jpg

Children are watching and learning from their environments and the adults around them all the time. Beginning to talk is an exciting part of development! When children are able to tell adults what they need and want, frustrations are reduced. Language development can also introduce more fun and interaction between parents and toddlers. There are many things that you can do to encourage your toddler's vocabulary to grow.

  • Motivate! Often, as parents, you can anticipate what your toddler needs or want before being told. Break this habit! Give children the opportunity to tell you what they want using words or gestures, such as pointing. If your child points at his or her cup, you can say “You want cup. Tell mommy cup.” If you know what your child wants, but he does not point, gently help him or her to point to the desired item. You may not always get a response, but this gives your child a chance to speak and teaches that words and communication have power!
  • Narrate your life. Talk about everything you are doing. Since children are not born with a vocabulary programmed into their brains, they must be exposed and introduced to lots of language in early development. Try talking out things you do in front of your child. If you are in the kitchen, talk to your child about stirring, pouring, even things like hot and cold. If you are in a store, talk about all of the pretty colors of the toys or clothes. When playing, tell your child what you are doing (“Mommy is rolling the ball” or “I am building a tower”). If you are driving, discuss the things that you see around you. There are opportunities for teaching language all around us in ordinary things! Keep sentences short, so your child is more likely to understand. Though you may feel silly at first, this is giving your child exposure to many new words and ideas.
  • Read, read, read! Books are an excellent way to introduce language. They can be used for many different activities. You can read the words on the page, point out pictures, ask your child to name pictures, and ask your child to point things out to you. If your child is using some spoken words, have them “read” to you, making up whatever story they like. Picture walks are another interactive, easy activity. When doing a picture walk, look through the book with your child. Instead of reading the words on the page, make up a new story, or ask your child questions like “what do you think will happen next?” These activities promote practicing language.
  • Give choices. Instead of asking only yes/no questions, give your child two carefully selected options for things like what to wear, eat, play with, or watch (“Do you want ball or car?”). Remember to only offer things to your child that you feel comfortable with them having, for example, don't ask “cereal or cake?” for breakfast options if you do not want them to have cake. Show your child his options; this will give a visual cue that will help your child make a choice. If your child is having trouble pointing to or saying the name of the item that is clearly desired, help them to point. If the child still does not say the name of the desired item, reinforce the name by handing the item to your child and saying “Ball. You want ball! Here is ball,” reinforcing the target word. Giving options gives the toddler opportunities to communicate with you!
  • Talk to your child's pediatrician. If you suspect that your child's language is falling behind, your pediatrician can be your first, easiest to find resource. Make an appointment, and talk to your pediatrician about your concerns. In the days or even weeks leading up to your appointment, try to take note of the following:
    • The number of words that your child says when trying to convey a thought. Do they typically communicate using gestures (pointing, nodding, etc), single word phrases (“juice” or “ball”), or two word phrases (“mama, go” or “want cup”).
    • Does your child talk or babble when playing?
    • How many words does your child use overall? Consider names of family members and toys, action words (want, play, etc.), and expressions (uh oh, oh no, etc.)
    • Will your child imitate things that you ask them to say?

Thinking about these questions ahead of time will prepare you for your appointment and better assist your doctor in assessing your child. If it is determined that your child's language is behind, you may be referred to a speech-language pathologist for further testing.