Helping Toddlers Expand Their Language Skills

Early language acquisition is instinctive and for most children tends to happen quite naturally. But how we as adults respond to their attempts to communicate can have an impact—accelerating or decelerating their language development. As a speech-language pathologist who works with young children who are in the process of acquiring and developing language, I have collected many strategies and techniques that help children learn. Here are some of the basics that you can use in everyday interactions with all children—those who are acquiring language typically and those who may be having a little more trouble.

Speech comes later

As all parents know, words aren’t the only way to communicate. Young children point, make eye contact, and use body language to give us messages. Recognizing, encouraging, and positively reinforcing these precursors to language set the stage for speech production and language to come. But even before kids figure out how to point to something they want, they communicate with us in other ways. Early on, when infants cry because they’re hungry or uncomfortable, they may simply be reacting to how they feel—but when parents interpret and respond to their cries and sounds, babies begin to notice the reciprocal relationship between vocalization and getting their needs met. This encourages them to begin intentionally communicating their needs, through things like pointing and body language and making more sounds. Eventually words will become the most efficient way for them to communicate with us, but until then parents shouldn’t overlook the importance of shaping nonverbal communication, which cements the utility of communication in a child’s mind and drives him to learn to communicate in more sophisticated ways.

One of the most interesting things about the development of language in children is that it is closely related to play. The time period when kids begin producing their first words, usually around 12 to 13 months, is also the same time that symbolic play evolves. By symbolic play I mean something like a child holding a banana to her ear and pretending that it is a phone. Developmentally speaking, it makes sense that these two things would occur at the same time because children must first learn to think symbolically in order to use language, since language is symbolic (a word represents an object, for example). So when you join your child in imaginative play, you are actually encouraging and helping to expand her new capacity to represent things mentally and symbolically. Observing and understanding your child’s play skills can help you as a parent know what to expect next. If your child hasn’t moved past banging a spoon on the table, you shouldn’t expect her to be using speech to communicate yet because, developmentally, the intent to communicate is still emerging.

Creating opportunities

There are lots of ways parents can create opportunities that encourage kids to practice their communication skills. A favorite is putting things just out of reach. Try giving kids only part of a puzzle or a toy. Let them ask you for the other pieces they need. The goal here isn’t to frustrate your child, but to encourages him to ask for things, notice things, and use intentional communication.

Another fun way to get kids communicating is to pretend to be forgetful. During a routine that you and your daughter have established—for example getting dressed—you can forget to put her socks on before her shoes. If your daughter is used to socks coming before shoes, she is going to notice the change in routine and “catch” you being forgetful. You can also pause during some predicable activity, like singing a favorite song. If she likes “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” maybe one day sing, “The itsy bitsy spider ran up the—” and then pause, encouraging her to fill in the blank. This not only encourages her to retrieve and use new vocabulary words, but also teaches her turn taking and that using language in a back and forth exchange is fun!

Strategies to expand language skills

When working with kids on language skills, your goal should always be to help them reach just the next level of complexity. If your child communicates in one or two word bursts, your goal should be to model and use three and four word sentences. But make sure to follow your child’s lead so they remain engaged and empowered to try out new words and communicate in new ways. Talking and communicating with others should be fun!

Here are some strategies you can use with kids from birth all the way up to five years old, depending upon their language level.

  • Imitate: If your daughter is making noises (babbling) or making another sound in play, you can do that too. Imitating children’s sounds, words, and actions shows them that they’re being heard and that you approve of what they’re doing or saying. It also encourages them to imitate you and your more complex language utterances.
  • Commenting and describing: Instead of telling kids what to do during playtime, give a play-by-play of what they’re doing. Say, “You’re putting the cow into the barn. The cow is going to sleep.” This models good vocabulary and grammar and helps kids organize their thoughts. Maybe they weren’t actually putting the cow to sleep, but by suggesting that you’ve given them a new concept to consider.
  • Eliminate negative talk: Try not to say things like, “That’s not where the cow goes,” Remember we want to encourage all attempts to communicate and validate those attempts so that kids do more of it. We all respond better to more positive phrasing.
  • Contingent responses: Respond immediately to all attempts to communicate, including words and gestures. It shows kids how important communication is and gives you the opportunity to model more sophisticated language skills.
  • Balance turn taking: Give kids the space to exercise their communication skills by making sure they get a turn. Maybe your daughter will look at you because she needs help opening a box. You can say, “You need help opening the box!” Then you can wait for her to hand you the box—that’s her taking another turn. Turn taking can be hard for parents because we’re used to taking charge of situations, but it is important to give kids the opportunity to use the skills they are developing.
  • Label things: Even when kids aren’t ready to use words yet, you can prepare them by labeling things in their environment. During snack time you can label the apple juice.
  • Limit “testing”: If you know that your son knows which sound a pig makes, don’t keep asking him. Testing him during playtime instead of just playing with him can be stressful. Instead you could say, “I wonder where the pig is going?” It still invites him to respond, but it doesn’t put him on the spot.
  • Labeled praise: Instead of just saying “good job,” you could say, “Good job putting all the blocks back,” because it reinforces their good behavior even more. For a child who is using some words to communicate, you could say, “Nice job saying more juice please.” This will help create positive feelings around communication and motivate them to continue to try and add new words.
About Rachel Cortese, MS, CCC-SLP

Rachel (Eckenthal) Cortese, a licensed speech-language therapist at the Child Mind Institute, specializes in the evaluation and treatment of young children and adolescents with communication disorders.

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  • Diana Auerhammer

    All of these strategies make a lot of sense. I have noticed when working with parents of cognitively delayed youngster that there can be a tendency to underestimate the child’s capacity for receptive language. So parents might resort to incomplete sentences, simplified language and other adaptations. For example “No hit,” rather than “We don’t hit.” Of course they surely are trying to help their child understand what is being said and just need reassurance that their child will develop language skills based on hearing rich and full speech from those around her.

    • Sue McGowan

      The second-last tip about “limit testing” tells you whether or not you’re underestimating your child (or student’s) abilities.

      I think simplifying language is very important (hopefully using decent grammar…) with developmental and cognitive delay. All of the tips above are excellent for parents and therapists!

      I can’t tell you how many autism specialists a decade ago scoffed at the idea of imitating, commenting and waiting. I think (hope) they’ve learned a bit more about that.

  • Patti Love

    All of the above strategies are excellent.All 3 of my children developed a large vocabulary and diction by the age of 3-4 years. But my youngest spoke in 4-5 word sentences by 2, and told stories by 3. They were all gifted, different for each, the youngest (again) was tested in the third grade and his vocabulary was at ninth grade level. I credit it to their father and I did not “baby” talk to them and we read to them from birth. The most significant skill though is basic engagement….discussion and inclusiveness in conversation.

    • Jennifer DiPietro

      I definitely agree with the reading and eliminating baby talk. My 3 year old is pretty much the same as your youngest. He has full conversations and comprehends an amazing amount of language.

  • Jen Komaromi

    Both of my children were exceptionally early talkers. We own a business and the kids came to work with us at 3 weeks old. During the morning rush they would sit in their high chair eating Cherrios and would interact with customers. Both said ‘hi’ at 4 months old. They are extremely articulate, something we always attributed their interaction with so many different people. The understood language early on because they had people talking with them all day long. They had over 30 words before a year, my daughter at 10 months.

    My son had a customer that would come and talk to him in Mandarin every day for 20 minutes. Every once in a while people would comment that it sounded like he was talking in Chinese. He was! The customer who spoke with him in Chinese told me he didn’t have an accent either. Exposing your kids to a variety of speakers seems to be important.

  • Elizabeth McFarland Clark

    I thought simple sounds such as mama and dada were around the 12 month mark and symbolic thinking around 22 months. Was this a typo- “The time period when kids begin producing their first words, usually around 12 to 13 months, is also the same time that symbolic play evolves. “

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  • Nick Russel

    Personally I use an app to teach my three young daughters some French and Spanish. It’s free, fun with animated animals and keep them focused. Amazingly, they already know many words in French and Spanish in addition to English: “Edu Animals Animated Multilingual”

    Young kids can definitely learn multiple languages at the same time. Try it…

  • Diana Sampedro Sanchez

    Great post. Also it is good commenting instead of asking, that way your kid has the opportunity to say something without being asked all the time.

    Diana Sampedro. BABY ENGLISH

  • Bridget Welbourne Giraldo

    Check out Speech Therapy Talk for some more speech and language games. This website is created by a speech language pathologist. There is a lot of free information and games and some paid options for specific needs. We are always here to answer any questions!!