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Early Receptive Language Targets… Learning to Follow Directions for Toddlers

Listen and Obey

Many times when a toddler isn’t talking yet, it’s because he doesn’t understand language. If you haven’t thought of this as a reason for late talking, let me encourage you to start here with what speech-language pathologists refer to as receptive language skills.

Receptive language means the language a child understands or comprehends.

This is how I explain the connection between receptive language (the words a child understands) and expressive language (the words a child says) to parents of late talkers:

Babies and toddlers must understand words before they begin to use those words to talk. It’s that simple. Comprehension comes first. When a child isn’t beginning to link meaning to words he hears, this is one of the main reasons he isn’t talking yet.

Learning to follow directions, especially easy ones such as, “Give me the ball” or “Wave bye-bye to Daddy” are the kinds of commands most babies begin to understand (and do!) just before they start to use their first words. Some parents mistakenly think saying the word “ball” or “Dada” come first, when actually, new talkers usually demonstrate that they understand what any familiar word means before we hear him use the word.

Around a baby’s first birthday, these are the kinds of things he or she should be learning. When a one year old can’t do these things yet, he or she doesn’t understand words well enough to begin to talk. Work on these kinds of things first and then words will be more likely to emerge:

  • Responds to own name
  • Responds with gesture to “Want up?”
  • Recognizes family members’ names
  • Stops when hearing “No” and other inhibitory words
  • Waves “Bye-bye”
  • Gives an object on request with and without cues
  • Kisses on request
  • Performs familiar activities in daily routines when asked
  • Understands names for familiar objects and people
  • Participates in social games with gestures
  • Begins to identify a few body parts

While this list isn’t all inclusive, it’s a great place to begin to help your toddler understand and follow early directions.

Rather than setting goals for a toddler to talk, this is the list I use for initial speech therapy goals for children I see with receptive language delays. Naturally, these are the same things I recommend parents focus on at home before talking becomes a realistic expectation.

Receptive language is important and I believe it’s the most overlooked delay with late talkers, even among professionals. When I teach my courses for pediatric speech-language pathologists all over the country, therapists consistently thank me for the focus on receptive language. While we know it’s important, we don’t always directly target these skills as a critical first step in therapy with late talkers.

I’ve written many, many posts about receptive language and you can read those here.

If you need some help with learning how to teach your toddler to follow these early directions, I have some great resources for you!

My DVD set Teach Me To Listen and Obey 1 & 2 explains receptive language and shows you how to teach a toddler to understand words during play.

My book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual provides specific directions and activities to work on all of the above milestones and more! While it’s written for therapists, parents who like written instructions and discussion love the structure of this tool.

Teaching toddlers to Play Social Games is an important step for helping a child learn to “do his part” during an interaction. Check out the linked post above. For step-by-step instructions and tips for teaching toddlers, take a look at my book Teach Me To Play WITH You.


you can teach words anytime, anywhere!



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1 Comment

  1. Marrium on August 8, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    Dear Laura,

    As many mothers have told you how grateful they are for your helpful articles I won’t be any different. I’m feeling a relief within and very much hopeful too. My about to turn four son seems to be stuck on the information he already has ‘ stored’ in his head. He used to babble a lot in his own broken language till the age of two. We used to be living with my inlaws till that time and everyone spoke the same language. Then we moved to UK for a year and now we are in the US for the last one year. At first I thought he isn’t talking much as he doesn’t have company. So I made him go to a daycare both these years. He picked up the new language a bit but was not able to connect the words and combine them to form a sentence. I thought he’d eventually “pick up” and will start talking but I got a bit concerned when I realized he’s stuck on the same information for almost a year. The reason I didn’t pay much attention to his language is that he’s extremely intelligent. He learns really quick. He’s good at picking even complex things. His memory is great. I’m always told he is way ahead in his class when it comes to learning. But i don’t want all that to go to a waste just because he’s not able to make it all come together. He’s not able to express what he thinks or wants or at times even what he already knows unless talked to asked separately or repeatedly. I’ve tried and practiced a few things mentioned in your various articles and the results are remarkable. I’m a desperate mother who wants to do all she can to help her child communicate better. Recently his teacher called me in and told me that he’s not able to follow instructions unless given to him one on one or he at times is not able to answer a complex question. I would like to know more about what exactly should I be doing with a fairly sharp child who just needs the right tools to communicate. At times I feel I give him words to speak and I want him to be able to do that on his own. He wants to express, tell me things I feel and I know but he gets frustrated when he’s not able to bring it all together. It breaks my heart.

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