Teaching Toddlers to Use the Words They Know to Change Their Worlds

“How many words can your baby say?” To the parent of a late talker, this seemingly innocent question is the most hurtful thing anyone could ask. New parents are often on a quest to see whose baby “knows” the most.

Many times expressive language is equated with intelligence. As a parent of a late talker, you likely know that this is not true since many children who are late talkers are quite intelligent. Sometimes more so than their chatty friends, but they don’t get credit for it, and especially not from the parents of the chatterboxes in your circle of friends.

As a speech-language pathologist, it’s not the number of words a child says that tells me how “smart” they are or how well they are communicating. (I am using the word “smart” only because this is the word most parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors use.) It’s how they use the words they have. Let me give you an example.

About two years ago, I was met at the door by an adorable 28 month old little girl I was set to evaluate. When her father let me in, she looked right past me, threw both arms into the air, and began to belt out a perfectly articulated, “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Laura. Happy birthday to you.” Without another word she ran away from the entry hall, through the den, and into the kitchen where she wanted to look at herself in the reflection of the stove.

When I called her name many times to cajole her into playing with me, she leaned into the stove to get a better look. Without warning she blew right past me and then began to sing, “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family….” Her song trailed off as she caught a glimpse of the TV. Mesmerized she stopped in her tracks, her attention fixated to the commercial. When she didn’t respond to her father’s attempts to gain her attention, he turned off the television. She launched into a meltdown and screamed and cried until he, in an embarrassed and exasperated state, walked over to pick her up. She grabbed his hand and pulled him back over to the TV.

Even though this little girl sang two entire songs perfectly that might be a challenge for many two-year-olds, she did not know how to ask for things she needed using words (including the “TV” that she so desperately wanted), call her parents when she needed help, or protest using words when a peer took a toy away (or when her father turned the set off.) Although she could label more than one hundred pictures, identify all her letters, numbers, and colors, and quote scenes from her favorite television shows, she couldn’t make a choice between what she wanted for dinner or answer a question like, “What happened,” when she was clearly upset about something.

For this little girl, and for any other child, it’s not about vocabulary size; it’s about learning to use the words you know to change your world. Speech-language pathologists call this “pragmatic” language.

Let me give you another example.

A few months ago, I met a darling little boy who was 16 months old. His mother, finishing her residency in pediatrics, was quite concerned because he was silent. No words. No babbling. Barely a peep beyond crying or laughing. However, as I watched him interact with both of his parents, he initiated interaction with them many times with eye contact, walked to his mother and held his arms up to be picked up, and then pointed when he wanted his sippy cup off the table. He laughed and with “twinkly” eyes looked back and forth between all 3 adults while we played with several different toys in a 30 minute time span.  He shook his head “no” when his mother asked him if he wanted more to drink. He pushed my hands away when I tried to help him learn the sign for more. What communication! What intent! But not with one word! (By the way -Five months later he’s talking a blue streak!)

The little boy in the previous example clearly demonstrated several types of “pragmatic” language, but all with gestures. In my world, that “spoke” volumes more than the little girl who could sing entire songs, name all the letters, and quote Dora perfectly.

By the time most children are 3, they learn to use words to accomplish the following purposes:

-To label

-To protest

-To respond

-To call/get attention

-To express feelings

-To imitate

-To greet/close

-To describe

-To ask questions

-To comment on what isn’t seen

We need to be sure that we are helping our children who are late talkers also accomplish the same purposes or “speech acts” with or without words. How can we do this? I’ll give you some examples.

If your child can label “car” when he sees his toy, have him respond to to a question when he sees a picture of a car in a book when you ask, “What’s that?”? Have him request “car” when you hold it away from him teasingly and ask, “What do you want?”

If your child can imitate the word “Dada,” have him practice calling “Dada” as you play a game with him waiting for Daddy to come home, or better yet, when Dad is hiding behind the door and can pop out once your little one has called him. When Daddy is hiding, ask “Dada? Where’s Dada?” emphasizing the rising tone of your voice to indicate that you asked a question.

If your child can use a word in one context, think about how you can get him to use the same word in a different context and expand his communicative intent.

If your child is nonverbal, work on using gestures to accomplish these same purposes. Use pointing to request by having him show you what he wants. He can use pointing to respond to questions you ask such as, “Where’s the ball?” He can use a head shake “no” or turn away in protest (a much more desirable than a fit!). He can wave to close before he says, “bye bye.” Model holding out your hands to ask, “Where” before he can imitate the word or ask questions.

Don’t forget how important facial expressions are in communication. I have seen many of my little clients learn to use their faces so well to communicate with others. Make your face match your words. “Fake” cry for sad and hold your hands up in front of your eyes to gesture crying. Clap your hands, smile, and say,”Yay” for “happy.” Make a surprised face and use an exclamatory word such as, “Wow” to help describe things you see. Use an inquisitive look just before and while you’re asking questions.

Even if your child has “hit a wall” and isn’t adding new words or signs, working on his pragmatic skills, or why he communicates is a great way to expand what he’s learning and the best way to continue to work on language skills. Most of the time, it’s not the size of the vocabulary that really counts. It’s HOW they learn to use words to control their worlds. Focus on communication, especially when the words aren’t coming yet. This will reduce frustration for everyone, including you!

 

Laura

16 Comments

  1. titserkak on June 12, 2008 at 8:24 am

    thank you so much for putting up this site Laura! your tips are incredibly helpful for speech therapists both in and outside the US. I myself am a newly practicing speech pathologist in the Philippines, and through your site you’ve more or less become my mentor for the past few months. I love to check out your blogs most especially when i feel not-so-confident about my skills as a teacher. your posts keep in check as to what my role really is in the life of my little clients. am looking forward for the next ones! Truly yours, kat =)

  2. Laura on June 12, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Thanks Kat! You made my day! Laura

  3. Lisa on August 28, 2008 at 11:46 am

    Hi Laura, I think my 3 year old son may have a langurage delay, he knows approximately 300 words, including letters, numbers, shapes and colors, but he has never said anything original. The only 2 word sentences he has said are things he has heard other people say. He repeats a lot of stuff he hears, usually the last couple of words of a sentence or question that he hears. Could he have echolalia? Do you have any advice on what I could do to encourage questions and other original speech from him?

  4. Laura on August 28, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Lisa – If a 3 year old is not speaking in novel sentences (4-5 word sentences on his own) frequently, he definitely has a language delay. And not to make you feel worse than you already do, a child who is not using original words and still mostly repeating everything, is likely functioning expressively at around the 18-21 month level, and that’s a pretty significant delay.

    I strongly recommend that you have him evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. Your local public school district is a place you could begin, or you could find a children’s hospital or speech-language pathologist in private practice or with a children’s treatment center (like Easter Seals). If you need additional help finding a place, start with your pediatrician’s office. Be sure to explain your concerns and specifically mention echolalia and the huge red flag you mentioned here – no original language.

    As far as what you could do with him at home, I’d recommend reading the articles in the expressive language section for ideas. He needs help learning to USE his language, not just repeat what you’ve said to him. He needs to learn to ask for things, telling you what he sees, and asking and answering questions. This site is FULL of information to help you work on this at home. Keep reading!

    If you’re a visual learner or have tried some of these ideas and still are having limited success, then I’d consider buying the DVD since you’ll get to SEE how to use the techniques.

    But again, my biggest recommendation for you is to get him evaluated by a speech-language pathologist as soon as possible. You don’t want to let this go untreated. These kinds of issues usually do not clear up without professional intervention, and you want him as ready for kindergarten as he can possibly be. Children who are still struggling to learn to communicate at this age are not going to be as sucessful as they could be, or more importantly, as ready to socialize and make new little friends, if they aren’t USING language as well as their peers. Knowing letters, shapes, numbers and colors are not as important as being able to ask for things you need, answer questions in conversation, and initiate social interaction with words.

    Thanks so much for your questions. I applaud you for being concerned about him. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you research. Laura

  5. Christy on February 26, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Hi Laura,
    I’m new to your website and I’m overwhelmed by all the info but am truly grateful that you’ve put it all together. I’m sure it will help us so much.

    My son is 33 months old and he is almost exactly as you described the little boy in this article. He communicates quite well and actually makes A LOT of noise but he doesn’t say any actual words.

    He has developmental therapy once a week and we’re working on setting up speech therapy but I was just wondering if you could direct me to the articles that specifically relate to how you got this little guy from saying no words to “talking a blue streak”.

    Thank you!

  6. Laura on February 27, 2009 at 6:04 am

    Christy – It’s not all in one article, so read the expressive language section for ideas. Most of the initial strategies I introduce to families can be seen on the DVD Teach Me To Talk, so check that out as well. Glad you’re enjoying the site! Laura

  7. Laura F on February 23, 2011 at 4:42 am

    Oh! I apologize again for even more information, but I completely forgot something else that might be key [of course, I only have a chance to really look into this once my kids are in bed and I’m exhausted!]

    He also:
    -repeats back the question as an answer very regularly. This is one of his common responses [either ignoring you completely seemingly unaware of your interaction, blankly staring at you, or randomly commenting on something else to get praise are his other responses]

    He is not particularly interested in any one thing, and if something doesn’t capture his interest he’ll just sit and zone into space. Also, even with his sensory issues, he still enjoys playing with playdough [though his play is significantly different than our daughter’s]. Using glue puts fear in his eyes, and if he gets any on his fingers he’s completely unable to focus on anything else for several minutes.

    I’ve just written and deleted several examples of his odd behavior, but I don’t want to leave you pages upon pages to wade through!
    I do hope something jumps out at you so we have some idea of how to proceed with him!

    Thank you again.

  8. Laura F on February 23, 2011 at 4:49 am

    Hi Laura,

    I don’t know if you’ll actually see this [it’s been two years since your last response!], but I’m so desperately looking for suggestions that I’m going to write anyway.

    I have two daycare children in my car during the week: they’re brothers, and the oldest of the two is who I am writing about. He’s nearly 4 [two months to go] and, we [my husband and I] believe, has some sort of learning disability. He reminds me in many ways of the little girl you described, just not to the extreme. We’re needing some guidance on how to help him and encourage growth and development.

    I’ll give some detail:
    -he’s great at labelling things [colors, shapes, letters/numbers, etc] and will point out anything like this for praise. He uses his knowledge as a distraction [you ask him an unrelated question, and he’ll often randomly respond “my shirt has [is] grey”, or something along those lines]
    -he does not know how/refuses to answer questions. My husband and I feel he doesn’t know how to connect his knowledge with a question, but from a comment from his mother, it’s felt by his family that he’s refusing to. We’ve had him in our care for four months now, and he truly seems completely confused and/or blank when he’s asked a question. These can be “how are you?”, “what did we do today?”, “what would you like to do after lunch?”… he will usually answer “fact” questions- “what’s your mommy’s name?”, “what color is that block?”, but some that require thinking get the same response: “who is in your family?” [this after talking about it- four times over! ]
    He will completely ignore someone, even after them asking the same question multiple times- our daughter will ask for a turn with his toy and he’ll just ignore her. When pressed to give her an answer [yes or no] he’ll simply hand over the toy to avoid having to answer, often looking upset over what he’s interpreted as having to do.
    -he`s not able to follow directions without direct, step by step followthrough. I noticed this very clearly when he had a cold and I told him to go get a Kleenex- that day we had to tell him to do every step [go over there, walk down the hall, go into the bathroom, go to the kleenex box, take a kleenex, yes, take a kleenex, *name*, take a kleenex. Good, now come with me. *name* come with me please. Okay, come baack to the living room. *name* come back to the living room, and bring me the kleenex. *name* bring me the kleenex. Thank you!] Writing this out, it sounds terrible, but we’re really not trying to torture him- we’re trying to teach him the actions, and he’ll just stand there, completely unable/unknowing to move forward!

  9. Laura on February 24, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Laura F- I response to questions here on the site every few days, so you’ve just commented on an article that’s had no specific questions listed in a really long time.

    Based on what you’ve said the little boy you’re describing does seem to be exhibiting a significant receptive language/auditory processing problem. The questions you’re asking him would be easily answered by a child of nearly 4 with typically developing skills. Talking, or expressive language isn’t the issue. It’s the underlying comprehension that’s the problem.

    Pointing this out to mom will be difficult for you, but she should have him evaluated. She can start with your local public school district since these services are free. If her insurance covers it, she could also take him to a private clinic or pay for the eval out of pocket. Either way, he clearly needs services, or he’s going to have lots of difficulty in kindergarten next year.

    That family is so lucky to have you since you’re such a committed caregiver! Read articles here on the website to give you tips for working with him when he’s at your home. Laura

  10. Laura F on February 25, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    Thanks so much for your response Laura, and for validating our concerns. We will continue to try to find a way to point this out in a way that’s received properly… that won’t cause them to pull away but instead look for help.

    I also want to apologize- my posts must have been confusing, as a large amount of information is missing and they appeared in opposite order. I was having an incredibly hard time getting anything to appear when posted, so after half an hour of struggle I finally gave up and hope the rest miraculously appeared! It appears you got to see enough anyhow, and again, I appreciate your time.

  11. Laura on February 27, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Laura F – The reason the posts don’t automatically appear is because we moderate our site. All comments must be approved before they appear which means that a real live person must read them, and that real live person is almost always me! If we didn’t use an approval process, the site would be overrun with spam posts including pornography, ads for everything under the sun, and any other number of things unrelated to toddler communication issues. So glad you read the answer, and sorry for the confusion! Laura

  12. amanda on June 3, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    Hi. I’ve learned a lot so far from your site, and this post especially struck me concerning my son, and i was hoping you could offer some insight. He will be three in two months. He has hundreds of words that he can speak very clearly. He knows the alphabet, recognizes and can say many shapes and colors, he counts to 40. He recites nursery rhymes, song lyrics, movie lines. He likes to say what letter things start with, like “b is for bread, g is for guitar.” He LOVES guitars (his dad has several) and he knows the makes and models by sight (even guitars he sees other places, not just the ones we own).He loves music and can recognize artists when we put a record on, all styles. He has dozens of hot wheels and knows each one’s name. He loves to be read to, and also “reads” to himself the books he has memorized. It’s during these times that his speech is most clear. But he also babbles a lot,loves to make sounds all the time. Sometimes I think he is saying something to me but it usually seems he is just speaking nonsense and acting silly. It’s hard to tell. If he is speaking words they are unintelligible. Sometimes I can make out words and i realize he is reciting a book. He will run around and babble jibberish a lot. He loves to swing at he park and gets really excited and babbles loudly. Although he can clearly speak more words than i can count, he has very few phrases. Some examples are: “put shoes on”, “zip coat”, “that’s dada’s guitar”, “apple (or whatever) please”, “don’t like it”, “change pants”, “ready to go”, “listen to talking heads in car”, “drive car”, “cat climbing up tree” stove hot”, more but not that many more. It seems like he should be making longer sentences by now? Also it seems most of his speaking is observational rather than expressive. It’s more describing pictures, or asking for food, than telling me a thought from his head. Hard to explain! I can’t imagine having a conversation with him. He doesn’t really answer questions and definitely doesn’t ask them. Doesn’t respond “yes” or “no”. We almost never use the word “no” with him (we’ll say something else like “danger”), but still. He can follow directions like “pull up your pants and get your shoes, please”. Tonight i was saying “Do you want to read Peter Rabbit?”and he wouldn’t even look at me like he couldn’t even hear me and then I said “Cupcake?” and he swung around and jumped up on his feet and ran to the kitchen. So I guess i’m wondering how much of this is normal and if there’s a clear delay. It’s the expressive part that is resonating with me. I worry about the lack of question asking and answering. Is the babbling excessive?! It sure seems like it but i don’t know many kids his age to compare to. Okay, sorry if this is rambling, but i’m just searching for some perspective. I’ve already been implementing a lot of what i’ve learned on your website and will keep it up, I just wonder if i should push it further with a professional. Thank you so much for your time, i truly appreciate it!!!

  13. Laura on June 4, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Amanda – I definitely recommend a speech-language evaluation for him. Of course I can’t see him and don’t know for sure what’s going on, but it sounds like much of his language is echolalic – meaning that he’s repeating what he’s heard – rather than using words and generating new phrase patterns truly on his own. I’m also concerned that he’s not answering questions or asking questions as an almost 3 year old with typically developing language would be doing by now. Jargon, or babbling, should be completely gone by now too and replaced with intelligible phrases and short sentences by the time a child is 2 and certainly by 3, so there are several “red flags” that would concern me.

    The GOOD thing is, he IS talking. He does understand that he should use words. He is following basic directions for you too, so while there certainly is something going on, he does have some nice strengths that you’ll be able to use and capitalize on during therapy.

    For the evaluation, you’ll want to tell the SLP what you’ve outlined here. He is great at “memorizing” and reciting mostly academic kinds of things – alphabet, counting, books he’s memorized, but that he struggles to generate his own ideas and thoughts. Tell her that much of his spontaneous language is jargon and that his words are the clearest and most intelligible when he’s quoting something.

    Echolalia is noted in children with difficulties with auditory processing issues & receptive language and is most often associated in children who go on to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Of course I am speaking in generalities here since I can’t see your child and have no way of knowing if that’s what’s going on with your little boy. I would certainly have him evaluated ASAP. You’re going to want to address any developmental concern earlier rather than later since kids don’t “grow out of” these kinds of issues.

    The things it sounds like he may be having difficulties with can be addressed in speech therapy and hopefully resolve so that he’s understanding and using language to truly communicate rather than to quote or label an event or action, which is what it sounds like he does more often than using words in a back and forth, reciprocal, and functional way.

    But please rest assured that he has some very nice strengths, and I’m sure with all he “knows,” he’ll be a delight for a talented therapist to work with and more importantly, teach you how to work with him at home so that he learns to truly USE all of those great words he can say. Please feel free to email me back with any other questions. Keep in touch and let us know how his evaluation goes. Laura

  14. Elizabeth on June 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Hi Laura,

    Thank you so much for this informative site! I’m writing because I’m starting to get a bit concerned with my almost 14 month old daughter. She’s been late to hit all milestones (including gross motor, cognitive and language), didn’t start babbling till 9 months and didn’t say “mama” (just babbling, no meaning behind it) till almost 11 months. Now, although her receptive vocabulary seems very good–she started understanding words at around 8 months, now recognizes at least 50 words and is even starting to learn prepositions and colors–but she still doesn’t say words with meaning.

    She doesn’t really imitate us either, other than clapping or clucking or blowing raspberries. For example she won’t mime talking on a phone or stacking blocks, and won’t copy vocalizations. She’s very social though, and points and says “Da” when she wants to draw our attention to something, and is very vocal when she wants something. Do you think I’m right to be concerned? Would you recommend SL therapy at this point? Are there any techniques you’d recommend we use at home?

    Thank you so much for your help!

  15. Laura on June 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Elizabeth – Thanks for your great questions. I’d keep working on the imitation piece since that’s the key for her. Try other gross motor movements for her to copy in play – patting a baby, rolling a car, etc… The podcast #113 (or maybe #112) was devoted to working on imitation skills and the hierarchy we use to move a child from imitating actions to imitating words. You can listen to that show by clicking the blogtalkradio icon in the right hand column.

    I love that she’s social and understanding words – that’s the foundation for language, and it’s wonderful that those areas are moving along nicely. I probably wouldn’t get an assessment at this point since she’s going to have to significantly behind to qualify for services, and with her age, she likely won’t have enough of a delay yet.

    That doesn’t mean that you won’t do her therapy at home though! The entire website is full of ideas for you to use with her at home. Read through the articles in the expressive language section. The best ones are the older ones – you’ll have to click through Older Entries to get to them. Read those and use play to facilitate new words. Also check out my DVDs – especially Teach Me To Talk – so you can see how to work with her at home using high energy, play-based activities. Laura

  16. Carmel on November 1, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    HI Laura, great site! I have a 26 month old who is bilingual in sign language and English. His grandparents are deaf and his parents are both qualified interpreters. He has around 200 signs and is putting together combinations like “daddy work” “baby crying”. His comprehension of spoken English is good, including instructions. He doesnt respond in either language though to questions – “do you want breakfast inside or outside?”, “do you want milk?” but will gesture often what he wants. He has only half a dozen spoken words, and most of that is recited in list form – mummy, daddy, apple, NO (he uses this in context), car, ball, down. He will identify car and ball and vocalise these when he sees them. He has recently started asking (speaking) “what’s that?” and pointing to various object but makes no attempt to copy the word when I give it to him. He knows all his colours in sign and can readily identify them, often signing ‘black car’ or ‘white bird’. My question is, should I be concerned about the lack of speech at this stage? Or is he on track for a bilingual child? He babbles lot, with lots of inflection and at various volumes. What can I do to help him start vocalising a bit more? Thanks

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"I just wanted to reach out to say thank you for making things a little easier to manage for me this year. I made the transition from school SLP to private therapist about a year ago. While the change was welcome, it was a lot, and I was just getting my footing in the clinic when I began teletherapy full time. Your website has been a huge lifeline in helping me work with late talkers and coach their parents in an accessible but effective way, even remotely. I look forward to getting your emails each week. I am floored by the amount of valuable, free information that your website provides, and I’m looking forward to investing in your workbooks soon. A sincere thank you for all you do!"

ALLISON

"You are an inspiration! I am truly grateful for the way you put into words and writing how to do what we do as SLPs. At this time in my 13 years of practicing, I find your encouragement keeps me going. As a single mom, I find it a stretch to buy materials these days and I am so thankful for the freebies you so generously share that help me teach my families. I don’t have much time to put together lists or quick references for parents!! Much gratitude!!"

ANDREA