“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 Wordsand 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

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

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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