Typically toddlers at a year and a half understand far more than they can say. It is in this latter half of their second year of life that they experience a “vocabulary explosion,” where they can learn and use several new words each week, culminating in combining two words for their first little sentences by two years of age. Words begin to take over for gestures, as children take turns in conversation and name objects, people and actions in their day.
I share these easy strategies with parents to encourage their toddler’s talking during this exciting time:
- Follow the leader. Follow your child’s focus of attention and comment about what he is looking at or exploring in his environment. Give him the words to describe what he is interested in and looking at, “Yes, all the animals are riding in the wagon and the farmer is ready to start up the engine.” Use rich vocabulary as you describe these scenes so your child will learn new words like engine, or start up. Research has shown a strong correlation between the time that mothers of 12-18 month-olds shared their child’s focused interest and the size of their vocabularies later. It makes sense that children learn and internalize more vocabulary when we talk about what they are interested in and focused on at the moment.
- Name the point. When your child points to what he wants, pause and see if he will say something. If he doesn’t have the word, you provide it for him, “Juice, you want some juice, you must be thirsty for juice.” Use the word in several short sentences so he can hear it emphasized in that context. In thefuture he will learn to say “juice” when he wants it. If you know that your child is able to say the word, wait a few seconds until he verbalizes something, but, never wait long enough to frustrate him. He might utter “du” or “ga” for juice but praise him for using his words. “Yes, juice.” Encourage him and model the correct way to say the word in your speech. This pause is important. Often in our attempt to understand our toddler we offer him something without waiting for him to ask. We need to give him the opportunity to learn that if he talks, he gets his needs met.
- Never correct him or put him on the spot. This seems obvious but so many parents say, “Oops, I’ve been doing that!” Instead of correcting him, simply model and say the correct word in your speech. In the same way, don’t put him on the spot by asking him to say something like, “Say Mama.” As soon as your child has a few words it is tempting to show them off to friends or grandparents. Usually when asked to directly say something, kids will go mute, Always talk to your toddler the way you would talk to an adult, as in a conversation. I don’t invite a friend over and confront them to, “Say couch!” Keep conversation natural and enriching, always using expressive vocabulary.
- Look him in the eye. Respond to your toddler with interest and eye contact even if you have no idea what he is saying! It is typical for tots to be fairly unintelligible at this age so it isn’t easy to follow them. Try to read his body language, gestures or objects that he is holding to understand what he is saying. Encourage him with affirmation so he continues to communicate. Practice makes perfect and talking leads to communication.
- Rephrase his requests. When your child says, “Milk,” show him that you understand him by adding to the phrase to clarify, “You want milk? I’ll get you some milk from the refrigerator. You must be thirsty for milk.” You have just filled in many words associated with wanting milk and have modeled little sentences to express his desires.
- Expand on your child’s words by adding descriptive adjectives, adverbs, or verbs. When he says, “Dog,” you can simply add, “Yes, the furry dog” or “the big, brown dog” or “the fast dog.” By giving him short, expanded sentences related to his topic, you are helping him eventually lengthen his sentences and add meaning.
- Always use grammatically correct sentences. When talking to your toddler, don’t talk in his telegraphic speech, but show him what adult language looks like. You can convey a lot of meaning in a short, grammatically correct sentence like “Your truck is fast” or “The brown dog is barking.”
- Let the pretend play begin. As your toddler approaches two years of age, pretend play starts to dominate his interactive fun. He will imitate familiar actions throughout the day like eating, drinking, sleeping, pushing the vaccuum or mowing the lawn. Provide props so he can pick them up and copy the action. Include some stuffed animals, dolls or pretend friends who can gather and join him for a pretend snack, nap or activity. Pretend play skills are linked to enriched language development.
- Set up an inviting pretend play area. Provide the props for different themes in pretend play–a farmhouse with animals, cooking items and pretend food, playground equipment and little people, a gas station with vehicles and drivers or a fishing boat. Make sure people are plentiful since they promote conversation. A train set with no people will not encourage language development the way one with people will because kids begin to take a figure and talk for him. Make sure you have all the pieces to go with a play theme so your child has the best opportunity to be creative.
- Be the producer not the director of his play. A parent’s job is to provide some fun objects, materials, or toys to invite a child’s imagination to take off, not to lead the play. If you see him telling a story on the farm, you might add play-doh to his table of props and see what he makes to go along with his creative theme–hay for the horses, a bed for the farmer or a trough for the pigs.
- Introduce books with a simple story line. Continue to read books that your toddler enjoys, and add some with a simple story line relating to their experiences such as waking up, getting dressed or eating. Baby Can’t Sleep by Schroeder adds some rhyming spunk to the bedtime ritual, and Pudgy, A Puppy to Love, by Goodhart, deals with finding your best friend. The Maisy series, by Lucy Cousins, includes episodes involving getting dressed, going to the playground, taking a bath, going to bed, and most recently Maisy Goes to the Museum and Maisy Goes Camping. Cornelius P. Mud, Are You Ready for Bed? by Saltzberg gives a goofy perspective on getting ready for bed. Read books that correspond to your child’s experience. Because toddlers are learning to sing, they enjoy books that illustrate songs like Skip to My Lou by Westcott, Miss Mary Mack by Hoberman and Westcott or Snuggle Puppy by Boynton. Clap Your Hands by Cauley calls your toddler to action, stepping to the beat. Choose books with strong, descriptive vocabulary like Hooray for Fish, a favorite by Lucy Cousins. The little fish invites the listener along to meet his spotty, stripy, happy, gripy fishy friends. Some count while others are hairy, scary, fat and thin. Shoe Baby, by Dunbar, takes the baby on a wild ride in a shoe through town, the sea and the zoo, repeating the phrase, “How Do You Do?” Most importantly, demonstrate your love of reading that will be contageous to your child.