Every parent dreams of the moment that their sweet little baby utters the words "mama" or "dada." Yet the expectation that most children begin talking has been around their first birthday has been impacted by world changes, and toddler language development can also vary based on the individual child. Regardless of when traditional milestones are or where a child is at with their speech, however, there are lots of practical things that parents can do to help their toddler learn to talk. We'll give you the tools for a successful start!
Why More Parents Have Been Reporting Speech Delays
The pandemic brought on a lot of change, including a long span of diminished socialization. While teens and adults clung to their devices to maintain some semblance of human interaction, the littlest members of our families went without. In fact, an Irish study found that 25 percent of children had not met kids their own age by the time they turned one. This has had a great impact on the communication skills of young children, with many experiencing delays.
This led the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control to change their language and communication milestone expectations. Previously, the guideline was for children to have a vocabulary of at least 50 words by their second birthday. As of February 2022, these organizations have expanded the time frame to 30 months. This lower language expectation has many parents worried their kids will fall behind. Thankfully, there are simple ways for you to encourage your toddler to talk. Best of all, you can incorporate these activities into your daily life!
Simple Yet Powerful Activities to Help Toddlers Learn to Talk
Children learn in two main ways - through imitation and play. This means that the best opportunities for language development are already a part of what you do every day! Try these parent-tested ways to play and interact with your toddler to facilitate speech. Not only are they simple, they'll also be fun and effective in helping your little one learn to verbally communicate.
Use Flashcards With Your Toddler
Reading to your kids is a fantastic way to build language skills, but for the toddlers who have virtually no attention span, this isn't a viable option. Flashcards are the perfect alternative! They allow your child to see and hear a word, as well as a picture of the person, place, or thing that's being described.
When using these, hold the card next to your mouth. This lets them watch your lips move while they hear the pronunciation. Repetition is key, so try to do their flashcards at least a few times a week.
Engage in Pretend Play
Did you know that pretend play is essential for language development? Imagination requires communication. When engaging in make-believe, the child doesn't have the object or thing in front of them, so they have to show or tell you its assumed identity. Creative play ideas for toddlers include being superheroes or a chef, pretending to talk on a phone or feed a baby, or building a castle out of pillows and blankets and protecting it from imaginary dragons.
PRO TIP: Part of pretend play is mimicking real-life situations. One fantastic game to facilitate speech is to have them "prepare dinner" for the family. Grab some plastic bowls and cups, wooden spoons, and a variety of large dry pastas. We recommend grabbing a selection of colors and shapes. Just make sure they are large enough that your toddler cannot swallow them. Then, let them measure, pour, and stir their meal!
As they prepare their culinary creation, narrate their actions. Put an emphasis on words like "in," "out," "stir," "go," and "stop." For example, as they pour the pasta in the bowl, repeat the word "in." As they stir, repeat "stir" over and over until they stop, and then say "stop!" Finally, pretend to eat! These simple techniques can help them learn these basic concepts and better understand how to use the words properly.
Sort Colors and Shapes With Your Child
This is another simple activity that can have big benefits. By categorizing colors and shapes, you are not just identifying their name. You are also aiding in your child's visual perception of the concept. This refers to a person's ability to interpret what their eyes are seeing.
If you want to get sorting, just grab some clear solo cups and colorful pom-poms from your local craft store. Line up your cups and put one colored pom-pom in each. Then, have your toddler repeat the process. As they pick up various colors, ask them, "where does the YELLOW pom-pom go?" If they get it right, acknowledge it!
Parents can also purchase wooden shapes for their toddlers to sort. We love the Melissa & Doug Pattern Blocks and Boards because, as they get older, puzzles can continue to help your child on their language learning journey!
Name Different Items for Your Toddler
This can seem tedious, but over time, it will become second nature. Name everything that you handle throughout the day. If you grab the jug of milk for your coffee, make eye contact with your toddler and say "milk." Repeat when you hand them a sippy cup filled with the beverage. When you go to get them dressed, pull out their pants and say "pants." In these instances, just name the object. The fewer words, the better.
One of the biggest mistakes parents and relatives make is tacking on the word "say" to an item - "Say shirt." "Say bear." You need to focus on the word you want them to say. Don't attach other words to the item. By doing this, you identify the object as the phrase "say bear." Your toddler doesn't understand the verb "say." Thus, if you want them to say "apple," then point at it and just say "apple." This provides a clear title to associate with the object. With continued repetition, they will begin to say the word when you point.
PRO TIP: It is also important to articulate actions. "All done," "more," "hungry," "sleepy," "stand up," and "sit down" are important concepts to teach your child. This gives them the basic tools they require to communicate what they need. You can accomplish this by simply saying "all done" when you take their plate away or "sleepy" when you put them down for their nap.
Give Them Choices
Another great way to help your toddler learn words is to give them choices throughout the day. Pull out two shirts as they are getting dressed. Say "Which SHIRT?" Then, identify the different colors: "RED shirt or BLUE shirt?" Raise each one up as you identify their choices. When they choose their preferred option, repeat the keywords. Apply the same concept to their snacks, beverages, and toys!
You can also have them help you shop at the store. Ask them which vegetable they would like to eat for dinner or which drink they think daddy would like best. This activity also gives them a small amount of control, which can help reduce meltdowns.
Count With Your Toddler as You Do Daily Activities
As you unload groceries, put away socks, or pull out plates for dinner, count them out loud. While the concept may be lost on them for a little while, over time, their understanding of number order and quantity will improve. If you do not have tangible objects to count, then use your fingers and their toes!
Be Strategic While Coloring
Handing your child crayons and paper will only get you so far. Be a part of the process. Draw out shapes and say them out loud. Help them do the same by guiding their hands with the crayon. You can also teach concepts like "go" and "stop" by saying "go, go, go, go" as you scribble and then shouting "stop!" when you cease the action.
This is a crucial concept to teach early on because if your child is uncomfortable in a situation and they cannot fully articulate their feelings, they can use the word "stop." This can help them better regulate their emotions and have some control in situations.
Techniques for Faster Learning
If you want to expedite your toddler's speech and language development, keep these strategies in mind as you encourage them to build their communication skills.
1. Always Use Positive Reinforcement
When your toddler starts talking, some words will be missing certain letters or phonemes. For instance, "purple" may come out as "urple." This is fantastic progress! They understand the general sounds to make in order to articulate the word. When they do this, the knee-jerk reaction is to say "no, P-URPLE." Since there is a negative connotation around the word "no," your child may not want to continue trying when continually corrected.
Instead, use positive reinforcement. Say "YES! That's right! PURPLE!" By praising and then repeating the word with the correct pronunciation, you signal to them they did something correctly, while still providing the proper elocution.
IMPORTANT NOTE: While you don't want to focus on exact pronunciation when your child is first learning their words, it is important to interject when they identify things incorrectly. For instance, if you hold up a purple card and they say another color like yellow, then it is appropriate to say "no, this is PURPLE."
2. Ask What They Want and Wait For a Response
You know what your child needs. They run over to the cup cabinet and sit and wait for you to pour their milk. Don't miss an opportunity for speech! Walk over and ask them what they want. Then, pause and give them a chance to answer.
Even if they don't engage at first, they will give you a response after a few weeks of asking. This is also a great opportunity to give them a choice - grab a bottle of water and a jug of milk. Identify each and ask which they prefer. Look for language learning moments like this throughout each day!
3. Limit Your Toddler's Toys
Too many choices can be overwhelming and it can inhibit imagination opportunities! You can eliminate this problem by offering your child two to three toys or games to choose from each day. Put the rest of the toys in a closet or chest, making sure that there is a specific place for everything. Order can bring understanding. If they want something different, let them grab it, but put away what they were previously using before playing with the new toy. This keeps them focused on the play and promotes better learning opportunities.
4. Remove Other Distractions
Playtime is learning time for toddlers. Thus, remove distractions. Turn the television off and put your pets outside or in another room. You want their attention on the activity. Also, keep these play sessions short and sweet - 30 minutes of focused play can go a long way in their lanaguage learning!
5. Pay Attention to Their Cues
If your toddler is not engaged in the activity, then the language learning won't occur. Don't force activities on them. Give them a choice and when they are no longer interested, ask them if they are all done. Then put the items away and select something else. Children are much more receptive when they are excited about what they're doing.
Another important thing to note is that if they start throwing objects or begin having a meltdown, ask if they need a break, and then immediately take them to their room. Clearly state that you are going to give them five minutes to calm down and walk away. Then, come back in the time you allotted and ask if they would like to play again. This teaches them that these behaviors are not constructive. Also, keep in mind that while these moments are frustrating, you need to leave your emotions out of it. This will only escalate the situation.
6. Use a Blanket or Rug During PlaytImes
It may seem silly, but having a blanket or rug on the floor during playtime can help to teach your child boundaries. This will keep them present in the moment when you are trying to help them with language skills - and it can also help to limit the mess!
7. Be a Part of the Learning Process
Parental participation is paramount for language development. Dictate what you do, identify different objects, and be a part of playtimes. More importantly, get on their level. Drop down to your knees and position yourself at eye level when you offer your toddler choices. Maintain eye contact during these exchanges. This promotes active listening, and it lets them see your lips move. Research shows that this can significantly help with understanding speech sounds.
Talking Takes Time and Practice
One of the hardest parts of language development is being patient. Every child will develop their speech at a different pace. This is perfectly normal. Don't let family and friends make you feel as if your child is behind. It is important to note that the CDC and APA guidelines are an AVERAGE. The 30-month mark is when they believe that 75 percent of toddlers will gain their first 50 words. This means that the other 25 percent of kids will take a bit longer.
Consider Sign Language
In order to ease this transition, speech therapists advise parents to teach their kids basic sign language to help bridge the communication gap. You can easily accomplish this by using the various hand signals while you say their associated words or phrases. It doesn't take long for toddlers to pick up these new cues.
Talk to Your Pediatrician and Dentist
For the parents who have tried the above techniques for weeks with no progress, you have a few options to consider.
First, talk to your pediatrician about scheduling an appointment with an audiologist for a hearing test. Sometimes, fluid can build up in your child's ears, which can cause hearing loss. This can cause speech delays and sadly, your child may not display any obvious symptoms of this condition.
Second, ask their dentist to check for a tongue or lip tie. These can make saying certain sounds difficult.
Early Childhood Intervention Programs for Speech Therapy
Finally, consider signing up for Early Childhood Intervention programs with your public school. If your child is under the age of three, many states provide low-cost speech therapy in the comfort of your own home. Your pediatrician can give you information on the programs available in your area.
Help Your Toddler Learn to Talk Without Stress
Speech and language is an important skill - and you're already doing a great job as a parent to think about the different ways to help your toddler learn to talk. Keep in mind these activities and techniques will take a few months to work, so stick with it! The more you do on a daily basis, the greater the chance that speech will surface sooner.