Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers

Steps to building verbal imitation

Do you have a child who doesn’t know how to repeat what you say?Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers

Do you get blank stares when you tell a child, “Say ____,” ?

Imitation is the core skill that many late talkers, regardless of their official diagnosis, haven’t yet mastered.

Many toddlers with developmental delays lack the fundamental skills necessary to begin to imitate single words, yet that’s just what we expect them to do when we write IFSP or IEP outcomes such as,

“Logan will use variety of words to communicate his wants and needs to his parents and caregivers.”

As SLPs who work in early intervention and preschool programs, teaching verbal imitation is where our treatment plans usually begin. We jump right into treatment by ‘following a child’s lead’ during sessions and narrating play with single words in hopes of jumpstarting expressive language. We advise parents to model functional vocabulary words during daily routines so that the child will begin to repeat those words. If it were really that easy, would that kid be on your caseload in the first place?

As a parent, you may be surprised or confused when your toddler doesn’t respond as you coax them to try to say words.

Helping very young children with developmental delays learn to talk, and specifically learn to imitate words, requires that we revisit how imitation develops. Excerpt from the book:

Imitation emerges very, very early in typical development and often occurs without direct teaching. Many times parents are teaching a baby through imitation without being consciously aware of the process. An infant’s earliest social and communicative interactions consist of looking at his mother and instinctively copying her facial expressions and vocalizations. The mother hears her sweet baby’s coos and repeats those sounds. The child responds by moving his arms and legs and vocalizing even more. During these back and forth gazes and early ‘conversations,’ an infant, only a few months old, begins a life-long process of imitating another person.

In the second six months of life, this process evolves as a baby begins to imitate her parent’s actions with objects. A parent shows a child how to stack blocks or operate the new Busy Box. Actions begin to look more like communication when a child copies a parent’s movements in early social games like Patty Cake and Peek-a-boo.

Contrary to what we may have been taught, teaching imitation first begins with teaching a child to imitate actions, not words, during play. For many of the children we see, this serves a dual benefit of helping them learn how to play.

Just beyond actions, we move on to helping a child learn to imitate other kinds of body movements and gestures that become communicative.

Even then many late talking toddlers aren’t yet ready to begin to imitate single words. The child may need to learn several ‘in-between’ steps before he’s ready to begin to imitate single words. Learning how to imitate mouth movements, early vocalizations like fake coughing and sneezing, play sounds like blowing raspberries and animal sounds, and easy exclamatory words such as “Wow!” should dominate our early sessions with late talking toddlers.

Many times parents and therapists don’t see success with late talking toddlers because we’re not working on the right things. Changing our approach to target imitation in its earliest and easiest forms is the place to begin.

Read more about the book:

In this 180 page therapy manual Laura Mize, pediatric speech-language pathologist and founder of, explains the hierarchy of verbal imitation skills she teaches to therapists throughout the country.

This simple, straight-forward approach is easy for both parents and therapists to understand and implement during familiar play-based activities and daily routines.

Laura’s method delivers a framework for knowing where to begin work with a late talking child, provides ideas for what to try when a young child’s progress stalls, and can serve as your new approach when your standard methods don’t seem to be adequate for a particular child’s issues.

Each of the eight levels is broken down into its own chapter and includes:

  • A detailed description for each level so you’ll know exactly what to do to teach the new skill. The rationale is presented so that you’ll understand why you’re working on each skill and how the skill relates to overall speech-language development.
  • This information is critical for parents to understand as they work with a child, but often SLPs and developmental interventionists aren’t exactly sure how to explain what we do so that parents are able to carry-over those successes. Laura’s practical style will fill in that gap so that you’ll know what to say and how to teach parents to follow-through at home.
  • The prerequisite skills a child should have mastered before each level is realistic are listed. You’ll know exactly when a child is ready to work on the next level. This will prevent a child from going weeks or months without seeing any measurable progress. You’ll also receive suggestions for targeting the prerequisite skills so that you help a child progress when he seems to be “stuck.”
  • A chart is provided for each level with many, many examples of the skills to target with a young child to move him along to words. There’s no guessing! You’ll know exactly what to work on with a child to address each new level. Each chart is a great tool for therapists to copy for parents & caregivers to reinforce what you’re working on during visits and for “homework” between sessions.
  • Each chapter includes a list of time-tested and toddler approved materials to use during play and during daily routines for each level. All activities are appropriate for use during therapy sessions in a clinic setting or during home visits with parents and siblings.
  • Specific ‘how to’ instructions for eliciting each skill are included for each level. This information is especially helpful for parents, for therapists who are new to early intervention and have limited treatment experience with late talking toddlers, and for experienced therapists who want to expand their repertoire of proven treatment strategies for young children with speech-language delays.
  • Troubleshooting tips for additional ideas are listed at the end of each chapter. There’s no more second-guessing why a child isn’t making progress. You’ll receive specific instructions for what to try if you’re not seeing results, and the next steps are outlined so that you can move a child forward.
  • A handy, one-page quick reference chart is included at the end of the manual. This is particularly suited for therapists to use as a ‘cheat sheet’ during sessions or to provide for parents as an overall guide for treatment.

Because young children learn best during play, Laura provides specific examples for using this approach with the following five common toys toddlers love bubbles, farm animals, baby dolls, Potato Heads, and cars and trucks.

Additionally, Laura lists specific recommendations for using this approach at home for several daily routines including meals/snacks, bath time, dressing/diaper changes, reading books, and playing in the kitchen.

If you’re a speech-language pathologist or developmental therapist looking for ideas to teach parents to use to incorporate language learning, then this is the resource for you! All charts and activity pages can be copied to share with parents as ‘homework’ for between sessions.

This resource is INVALUABLE for therapists who work in programs embracing a ‘no toy bag’ or consultative approach. Not only will you receive many, many practical ideas, but you’ll have plenty of written ‘how-to’ directions to share with parents in an easy-to-understand format.

Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers – $48.00

PayPal customers can easily order with PayPal Express through our online store. Click the link above to order.



“Hi Laura – I just love your new book. Thank you, thank you for this valuable resource for parents and professionals!!” Pat, Early Intervention SLP

“Laura, love the new book!! I’ve read about a fourth of it and I am already implementing some of the great ideas you provided. Thank you!” Angi, SLP, Alabama

“Thank you so much for the new therapy manual Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers! I love the handouts and think they will be so helpful to the families of clients in our birth to 3 programs. ” Jennifer, SLP, California

 “I received your book yesterday… I have been learning SOOO much! I wish I had known this coming out of grad school???” Danielle, SLP, CA

 “I like the eight levels chart for parents. They can see how one level builds to another and the progress made before there are WORDS. I also like to show that you can’t SKIP levels/ skills. Lots of ideas and suggestions but clear and concise. ” Molly, SLP, comment from’s Facebook page



  1. babina on July 14, 2015 at 9:22 am

    Hi Laura,
    Its been 6 months I was reading and applying the things you have said in verbal imitation book. This book is awesome. It was a perfect start for my son’s mouth movements. At first its not working but I kept trying cause I had no other options. Then now after 6 months my son changed from non-verbal to verbal. He has moderate to severe apraxia, mild autism now he immitates with us. We coupled this book with exercise like swimming, jumping 200 times, swinging and heavy muscle excercise like crawling through tunnel. He even started to say 2-3 sentence. Now we are working on approximation. He is unable to say BEE, PEA word he says “TEE” instead. I would really appreciate if you could give me some tips on how will I help him for this mouth movement. Thank you.

    • Laura on July 22, 2015 at 5:23 pm

      Hi Babina! I’m so happy he’s making progress!! Talk with your SLP about specific tips for increasing his accuracy with articulation… however, it may be a little too soon to worry about that just yet. He may have to be verbal for a little while longer still working on increasing his vocabulary and sentence length before you get too focused on articulation or speech sound accuracy. Talk with your SLP to see what she thinks. If it seems like he’s plateauing or just can’t fix those sounds yet, back off and work on more language goals then work in those kinds of sound goals gradually. You always want him to know that his effort is what’s most important. He’s only been verbal for 6 months and you don’t want to stifle that progress. Good luck to you!! Keep me updated! Laura

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Dear Laura,

Thank you for your generosity in sharing so much knowledge in such a clear and enthusiastic way.

As a retired audiologist with a fabulous and language delayed grandson, I used your podcasts and outstanding publication, The Autism Workbook, to inspire and guide me over the past year.

It works!! He went from barely verbal, no gestures, didn't respond to his name etc etc to a verbal, social, curious, ready to imitate anything, fill in the blanks on familiar "set" speech, generate his own totally appropriate and mostly understandable sentences...not just short phrases anymore... full little paragraphs...about imaginary things, what he did during the day, what he wants. True communication!

You make a powerful difference in this world! ❤

With gratitude,

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Sheila, Canada

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I received your book (The Autism Workbook) yesterday and it is absolutely amazing! As I evaluate young children (0-3) for developmental delays and write plans for them with their parents, there are a ton of ideas that are ready to use. Others that reinforce what I have been doing, and saying, all along. Thank you so, so much for writing this incredible book and pulling everything together in one place!"


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We still have so much work to do with our sweet boy, but I know in my heart he would not have succeeded without the education you provided. I will continue to read your emails & watch videos as we go along this journey and face challenges, but credit is due to you, Laura.

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