VOCABULARY DEVELOPMENT FOR TODDLERS
#1 Rule… Focus on teaching words a child can use during everyday activities.
Frequently parents (and therapists!) ask for a list of vocabulary as they begin to focus on teaching a toddler to understand and use new words. That’s no easy task! Kids and families like and do different things. What’s relevant for one toddler is foreign to another. If you live a city, your child is not likely to need to know words like “horse” and “tractor,” but if you live in a rural Kentucky like I do, he probably does!
For this reason, the best way to decide what words you should focus on teaching is by paying attention to what comes up during a child’s everyday life.
What’s important to a child and his or her family? When I work directly with parents, I recommend that they begin by making a list of their child’s favorite people, foods, toys, pets, and things to do.
Be sure to include any favorite characters from shows or games, especially for toddlers who have spent lots of time with “screens” watching TV, DVDs, videos, or apps. When a child has unique interests (even fixations), include those too. These are the words we should make sure that he learns to understand first. Not only does this approach make sense from the “importance” factor; it lines up with how toddlers typically learn language.
Early vocabularies include mostly nouns, or names for people, places, and things. As you made your initial list for what your kid likes, you were recording nouns. Because these are the things a child prefers, many late talkers will already understand these nouns. Celebrate—you won’t have to teach them!
What’s even better is that you now have something to work with to teach other new word types that a child doesn’t seem to understand yet. The word types that toddlers learn next include action words, or verbs, and location words, or prepositions. Even though these words aren’t nearly as individualized or as exciting for a child, they are essential for helping a toddler learn to follow directions.
Early Action Words: Verbs – bite, blow, break, bring, bump, clean, close, cook, cry, dance, draw, drink, drive, eat, fall, feed, finish, get, give, go, help, hit, hug, hurry, jump, kick, kiss, look, love, open, play, pull, push, put, read, ride, run, say, see, show, sing, sleep, smile, splash, stop, swim, swing, take, throw, tickle, touch, walk, wash, watch, wipe, write
Early Location Words: Prepositions – in, out, off, on, up, down, there, here, under
Toddlers learn best by DOING!
Remember that toddlers learn best by DOING! Teach action words and location words as they’re happening in real time in a toddler’s everyday life. Because all these words are “functional,” situations will naturally arise so that you can highlight the word and help a child link meaning. Please don’t fall into the trap of using flashcards, a vocabulary app, a YouTube video, or even an educational game to teach these words.
Teach by DOING!
When a word doesn’t seem to occur in things you already do, it should be relatively simple to set up situations for introducing that word. I promise, it’s much easier than it may seem. 193 For example, if you realize that your toddler doesn’t understand the word “dance” because you don’t do it very often, all you need to do is begin to dance and talk about dancing. If you don’t think your child understands the word “down,” make sure that you emphasize the word “down” each time you’re placing him down on the floor, down on the bed, or going down the steps. To be even more purposeful, you could play a fun game where the main action is falling down.
When a child seems to need more “oomph” to learn a new word, use one of his favorite characters or highly preferred activities. For example, if a child’s favorite character is Buzz Lightyear, Buzz becomes the teacher! Make a Buzz toy perform any of the action words and put him in all the locations on the word lists.
Let’s try a scenario that’s a little trickier… if a child is fixated on playing outside in the driveway, help the child do as many different actions and put himself or objects in as many different locations as possible while he’s out there. Look back at the lists. Nearly half of the words on them can be taught in the driveway using the toys he already plays with out there, like cars and trucks or with other interesting things you might find like leaves, rocks, and sticks. You may have to be a little more creative in this situation, but it can be done! See what I mean? Real life is much easier to set up than tracking down special “therapy” materials!
Teach other kinds of early words too. Beyond a child’s favorites (nouns) and common action words (verbs) and familiar location words (prepositions), here’s a list of other early words used in everyday routines:
Possessive Words (pronouns) – me, mine, my, you, I, it
Descriptive Words (adjectives/adverbs) – all gone, asleep, bad, big, broken, careful, clean, cold, cute, dark, dirty, dry, empty, fast, fine, gentle, good, happy, hard, hot, hungry, hurt, little, naughty, ice, old, pretty, scared, sick, sleepy, soft, thirsty, tired, wet, yucky, yummy
Quantity Words (pronouns) – all, one, more, none, other/another, some
Other Common Nouns – names for household objects, rooms in your home, pieces of furniture, body parts, clothing, food and drinks, toys, outside things, places to go, games and routines, vehicles, and animals
Social Function Words – please, thank you, hi/hello, bye-bye, again, sorry, uh-oh, yes/uhhuh/okay, no/uh-uh
Common Questions and Phrases – Are you hungry? Are you sleepy? Be careful. Be quiet. Be still. Change your diaper. Come here/come on. Daddy’s/Mommy’s home. Don’t do that. Don’t touch. Get up. Give it to Mommy. Give me a hug/kiss. Go bye-bye. Go night night/go to bed/take a nap. Get the ____. Give it to me. Good boy/girl. Look. Open your mouth. Sit down. Spit it out. Stop it. Take a bath. Throw the ball. Want to go for a ride? Want a drink? Want more? Ready, set, go!
Don’t let the size of this list intimidate you! Toddlers, whether they talk on time or late, learn words best when you include them naturally, but consistently, in your daily conversations with them. Learning what all these words mean will not happen for any child in a day, or a week, or even a month, but it will happen over time if you’re committed to the process.
Download a pdf of the word list: