Developing your toddler’s language skills – It’s all about opportunity!

Author: Andrea Cooper
Senior Speech Pathologist

As a speech pathologist, families often come and see me with concerns about their child’s lack of words. Language can be separated into two parts; receptive language (the ability to understand information) and expressive language (the ability to share and put ideas and thoughts into words and sentences). Today we are going to focus on developing your child’s expressive language skills. All children develop their language at different rates, however generally we would expect your child to have the following expressive language skills at the following ages:

At 18 months children can generally:

  • say 6 to 20 single words – some easier to understand than others, but becoming more consistent
  • copy lots of words and noises
  • name a few body parts
  • use objects in pretend play (e.g., hold toy phone to their ear and say ‘hello?’)

At 2 years children can generally:

  • say more than 50 single words
  • put two words together (e.g., ‘bye teddy’, ‘no ball’)
  • use their tone of voice to ask a question (e.g.,‘teddy go?’)
  • say ‘no’ when they do not want something
  • use most vowel sounds and a variety of consonants (m, n, p, b, k, g, h, w, t, d)
  • start to use ‘mine’ and ‘my’

At 3 years children can generally:

  • Say four to five words in a sentence
  • use a variety of words for names, actions, locations and descriptions
  • ask questions using ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘who’
  • talk about something in the past, but may use ‘-ed’ a lot (e.g., ‘he goed there’)
  • have a conversation, but may not take turns or stay on topic.

These milestones are available on the Speech Pathology Australia Website

Okay, so now we know what your child should be able to do, but what can we do if your child is a little behind in demonstrating these skills. Well it’s all about opportunity!

It’s simple really, if your child has no reason to communicate, they often won’t. We need to think about why we say the words and sentences that we do. We communicate for many reasons; sometimes it is to ask for something we want or need, to ask questions and explore ideas, to express our thoughts and feelings and importantly we communicate to socialise with other people for enjoyment.

Your child communicates for the same reasons that we do!

To help develop your child’s expressive language skills we can focus on improving your child’s ability to express their wants. To do this we first need to avoid speaking for and anticipating your child’s needs. In therapy we use PAUSE to stimulate language. By pausing and giving your child time and an opportunity to attempt communication, they can discover cause and effect relationships. Children will learn that if they make a gesture or a sound they get a response. It is important to acknowledge both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication and praise them for it. Encourage all forms of communication, as often non-verbal communication comes before a spoken word!

Think about setting up the following situations at home to try and stimulate a response from your child, remember to use PAUSE and REPETITION:

  • Give your child an empty cup at dinner time, pause and wait, looking at them expectantly. Your child may look confused and hold the cup up towards you, they may even say “drink”. Acknowledge both the gesture or the word by saying “drink, you need a drink”.
  • Pause in the middle of your child’s favourite nursery rhyme. Your child may give you a gesture or make a noise for you to continue. Here is a link to a perfect example of this technique in practice;
  • When playing with a ball, use the words “ready, set… go” before rolling it away. Repeat this a few times. After a few turns, pause before saying “go”. Pause for at least 1-2 seconds (it may feel weird at first), and then say “go”. Repeat this a few times. Make sure you pause and wait for your child to say “go”, and if they do, get excited and praise them!

If you do have any concerns it is always a good idea to talk to your GP and a speech pathologist. We can provide you with tools and strategies that can be effective in developing your child’s language skills.

Happy Talking!

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