Teach Me to Talk: Building Verbal Imitation in ToddlersTeach Me to Talk - The Therapy Manual
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January 26, 2012 | Laura | Comments 10

“What can I do to help my toddler learn more words?”

Below is an excerpt from my book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual.

This is the first response I give to any mom who asks, “What can I do to help my toddler learn more words?”

Teach USABLE Words and Teach by DOING

“The brain learns best through exploration and interaction with real people!”                ~ braininsights.blogspot.com

There’s a very popular article on my website called, “Ditch the Bells, Whistles, Flashing Lights, DVDs, & ABCs!” Among my recommendations, I emphasize the importance of using toys to teach functional vocabulary to toddlers with language delays. Parents, and even some early intervention professionals, often emphasize the WRONG kinds of words. Who cares if a child can count by rote or identify shapes, colors, and letters when he doesn’t understand a simple, real life command like, “Go get your shoes.” 

While children become hyper-focused on these kinds of skills on their own due to their preferences for visual patterns, adults often emphasize these concepts thinking it’s educational. Toy manufacturers have duped parents into believing that these are important academic concepts that must be hammered into our children from infancy.

In our profession, we’ve all encountered children who recognize letters and numbers or even those who could read by the ripe, old age of 2 or 3, but who also struggle to answer simple questions. What good are all of those academic concepts when a child can’t use and understand language in order to get his needs met?

In his books and on his website Dr. James Macdonald, speech-language pathologist, shares his belief that an overemphasis on this kind of academic information shuts down early communicative attempts and drives children away from us.

I believe that teaching these academic concepts by rote memorization is even worse for some children. When a toddler is able to spit out those kinds of words on request, it may actually prevent parents from recognizing the severity of his comprehension issues. How many times have we tried to explain a child’s developmental issue to disbelieving parents (or grandparents) who’ve never considered that a child might have a language comprehension or auditory processing problem because he knows his letters and numbers? Mom and Dad might think the child has an attention problem, a behavioral issue, or even social awkwardness, but all of that “data” masked the fact that the child exhibits a very real communication disorder. They wonder or may even ask you, “How can he have a problem learning language if he can already talk?”

To combat this myth, educate parents and the other professionals you encounter in your practice. Practice what you preach too! Don’t emphasize colors, shapes, letters, and numbers in therapy sessions UNTIL a child’s language skills are functional and near an age-appropriate level. As a rule, I ask parents to wait to talk about these kinds of words until a child is using phrases consistently and has a vocabulary of at least 50 “real” words to ask for what he needs. From a receptive language perspective, this certainly would include being able to understand and follow a variety of directions in every day routines.  

If a child demonstrates a strong preference for these kinds of words, meaning that he uses these words perseveratively or prefers activities with these concepts, I might incorporate his preferences as a way to improve attention and participation. Use them to target more complex auditory processing during games or even in expressive tasks for phrase practice if he’s not able to use other word combinations yet. However, I never teach these concepts formally as a “goal” for very young children, particularly during these early developmental phases. 

What kinds of words should we target? On the next page is a list of the most common words present in the vocabulary of typically developing toddlers according lists compiled from Dr. Rossetti’s work and sources from Nancy Swigert’s Early Intervention Kit.


This list may be helpful for parents during your initial visits when you’re talking about the kinds of words to target in daily routines. Feel free to copy and share the next page with your families. 


Naming Words (Nouns) ball, book, choo-choo, train, bike, rain, bubbles, car, truck, boat, plane, baby, bowl, spoon, diaper, sock, shoe, shirt, pants, hat, star, flower, house, tree, brush, towel, bath, chair, table, bed, blanket, light, cookie, cracker, chip, cheese, apple, banana, ice cream, cereal (Cheerios/ “O’s”), candy, milk, juice, water, dog, cat, fish, bird, duck, cow, horse, bunny, bear, pig, lion, elephant, butterfly, bee, frog, alligator, snake   

Names for Favorite People Mama, Dada, names for a child’s siblings, pet names, grandparents & other family members, sitter, and favorite characters such as Elmo, Dora, Diego, etc…

Social Function Words more, please, thank you, hi/hello, bye bye, again, sorry, uh-oh, yes/uh-huh/okay, no/uh-uh

Common Action Words (Verbs) eat, drink, go, stop, run, jump, walk, sleep/night night, wash, kiss, open, close, push, pull, fix, broke, play, want, hug, love, hurt, tickle, ”gimme”, all gone, all done, dance, help, fall, shake, see, watch, look, sit, stand (up), throw, catch, blow, cry, throw, swing, slide, climb, ride, rock, ”C’mon”, color/draw      

Location Words (Prepositions) up, down, in, out, off, on, here, there

Descriptive Words (Adjectives/Adverbs) big, little, hot, cold, loud, quiet, yucky, icky, scary, funny, silly, dirty, clean, gentle, wet, soft, fast, slow

Early Pronouns me, mine, my, I, you, it


Teach New Words By DOING!                                                                                                                               

How do we teach these words to toddlers? Teach by DOING! Use the target word during play or in a common daily routine such as mealtime or dressing. Using pictures or flashcards to teach any new word is NOT recommended as the sole method for teaching children at this developmental level. Toddlers learn best by doing! So…. PLAY! Spend time on the floor with your toddler every day with the goal of teaching him new words.  

Toddlers need to hear and use a new word at least 20 times to really learn it and make it “stick.”


If you’d like to learn and SEE exactly HOW to do this, check out my DVD Teach Me To Talk. Click here for more information.  

This information is from my book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual and is copyrighted to www.teachmetotalk.com. For more information about the book, click here.   

All teachmetotalk.com products are available for review and purchase here.


For more ideas to help you teach your child to understand and use language, check out my line of products here at teachmetotalk.com!

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There Are 10 Responses So Far. »

  1. Hi Laura, Do you have any conferences planned for 2012? I am looking into conference funds available through my employer, and was hoping to see you this year! Thanks! Jenny

  2. Hi Jenny. No firm dates yet. I write in the winter and speak in the summer and fall. Keep checking the site here and on teachmetotalk.com’s Facebook page for updates. Laura

  3. Hi! My son is 16 months and just mastered walking (like last week). He has no words expressively, but he can sign 4-5 words. He also seems to understand what we say to him. Early Intervention has said they are not concerned because “kids don’t usually talk when they are learning to walk.” They think that now that he has mastered walking, he will start talking soon. Do you agree with their opinion or should I find someone else to evaluate him? Is it concerning that he has no expressive words at 16 months? Thanks so much!!

  4. Hello
    I have a17 month old son, who does not use verbal nor non verbal communication until now.. He constantly likes to be carried otherwise he gets in to a tantrum or crys, he is walking but does not know how to get up alone if he falls , he must grab on to things to get up.. He avoids eye contact as much as he could, he does not respond to his name.. He eats properly .. We speak 2 languages at home, but try focusing on just English with him..he started to bite us when he gets frustrated and can’t understand us .. What should I do? I live in Egypt..
    Thank you

  5. Quite informative content. My son is 2 years and 4 months and speaks very few words, but otherwise is very active, understands everything, follows instructions, tries to mimick talking, but knows few words. He takes a pacifier while sleeping only and watches cartoons for approx. 2 hrs ( a very fussy eater and wants to be fed when his favorite cartoon is ON). HAs just started going to playschool and even there takes part in all activities but words is a problem. what do you suggest?

  6. Hi Laura,

    Firstly, thank you very much for a very informative website. I have learned a lot just going through your site.

    My son is 33 months old and has a vocabulary of about 200 english and 75 german words (in January this year he only had about 20 english and 4 German). He loves being read to and can finish off lines in the stories. He identifies the alphabet correctly, counts items (not just recite the numbers) to 15 and knows 8-10 colors. He is speaking mostly with single words and I am concerned of the following:

    - he uses a lot of phrases in correct context but i am not sure if he put them together or he has learned them as a whole. (e.g. want sit in the potty now / there’s Papa / open the door). When he uses it correctly without prompting, is that considered spontaneous or is he merely echoing?

    - He is not asking any questions except for “What happened?”

    - Will say no, but instead of saying yes, he will say what it is or what he wants. Q : Would you like a snack? R: Eat / cheese / cookie / bread (or he’ll go to the Fridge and say open)

    - How do i encourage him to reply and ask questions?

    Lastly, which of your products do you think would be useful for his development?

  7. My daughter is 25 months old and she has a vocabulary of 20-30 words. She understands and comprehends everything. If you ask her to get the ball and toss it or to pick up something and bring it to you she does. She loves to be read to and enjoys going to the library. What would you suggest to elicit more vocabulary from her? She is beginning to say more words. Please help

  8. hello Laura, i have a 22 month old son who i think is having a problem with pronounciation. He can follow alot of verbal commands like ” can u go get mommy a diaper ” or please go put that back in your room ect… he can point out most of his body parts and is starting to dress himself and so on, so i know he is comprehending everything im saying and knows what words mean he just cant say them?? he only says dada, have, he will shake his head no but wont say it, i am worried that he deff should have way more words by this age?? can you give me any advice please :) thank you

  9. oh also Laura he tries to talk in his own language but its mostly just babble, so he is def trying he just cant pronounce correctly :( any help please Lea

  10. Thank you for this article. I’ve been concerned that my son’s speech therapist has been putting too much emphasis on colors and shapes. He’s almost 26 mths and has about 15 spoken words and several words he can sign. I focus more on teaching him helpful words when we’re alone.

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