The Truth about Flashcards for Toddlers Who Don’t Yet Talk


The Truth about Flashcards for Toddlers Who Don’t Yet Talk

I almost titled this post “Why Flashcards Don’t Work to Teach a Nonverbal Toddler to Talk,” but I opted for the one above instead. Many parents and even some therapists default to using flashcards in an effort to teach a child new words.

From a parent’s standpoint, flashcards may be a natural choice. They seem educational and after all, doesn’t everyone remember using flashcards in school to learn new information?

From a therapist’s viewpoint, I can also see why flashcards may be a preferred treatment method. When most of us attended grad school or have treated older children, we were taught to use picture cards during therapy, mostly to increase efficiency. It’s pretty easy to flip through a stack of 25 cards with an 8 or 10 year old, particularly if you’re working on getting the right sounds in the right places (or articulation, if you prefer the technical terminology.)

But here’s what happens when we try to use this same technique with younger and younger kids… it doesn’t work! Or at least not as well as we’d like and here’s why:

Many young children who are pre-verbal aren’t yet symbolic and pictures are symbols.

Flashcards show pictures of objects (and sometimes even written words!), and the child may not realize that the picture represents the real thing. In other words, just because the child sees the picture of the cup, he may not associate the picture of the cup with the one he may even be holding in his hand. Some children may not yet understand the word “cup” even when you say it.

This is important for language development because words are also symbols. If a child hasn’t yet linked the spoken word “cup” with the one he uses every day, he may not be ready to understand the picture is also called cup.

Beyond that, for many, make that for most toddlers, flashcards are just plain B.O.R.I.N.G. What’s the appeal of looking at a picture of a dump truck when you can glance out the window and spot a life-size truck or even better, you can zoom a cool toy version across the floor?

It’s true that some children do like flashcards. These are usually children with visual strengths. Kids like this may also watch movie after movie, spend lots of time exploring picture books, or require that the iPad be pried from their little hands in order to move on to something else. They may be drawn to finding shapes, colors, letters and numbers in all kinds of places. For those children, flashcards may be a natural extension of their individual learning preference. Although I detest flashcards for most of the toddlers I work with during therapy sessions, even I use them with children like this because it’s what they enjoy. Because of that, flashcards do work to teach language for these young learners. However, we must be careful, even when kids do seem to learn words by looking at the cards with you, that their language skills are generalizing to everyday life. It’s problematic when a child can say “banana” when he’s looking at a picture in his favorite book or in an app, but he can’t ask his mom for “banana” when he sees it on the counter top in the kitchen.

So if flashcards are out, what’s a desperate parent or therapist to do when we want to teach a very young child a new word?

It’s easier than you think!

Choose real life!

When language is emerging, or when a child is first beginning to learn what words mean and how to say them, teach new words by using real objects and real events, preferably as you’re going about your day. You don’t need pictures of blocks, a car, a ball, cookies, or milk to teach those kinds of familiar words. Dig through your kid’s toy box or get yourself to the kitchen and find the real one instead!

Be sure to say the word several times as you use the object in the way it’s intended – meaning that you actually play with the toy or eat the food. It will be much more relevant and much more likely to make a lasting impression for your child to help him learn to understand and use the word. Beyond that, the real thing is just plain FUN for your child and for you!

Remember…you can teach words anytime, anywhere.





  1. funmi on March 29, 2016 at 11:02 am

    wow, good and educating. thanks

  2. Melissa Niemi on April 5, 2016 at 7:41 am

    This is what I have had to explain to several parents in my early intervention career- with varying degrees of success. This link should be VERY helpful for those parents who I’ve not quite convinced, yet. Thanks, Laura!

  3. Belinda on May 25, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    My son is 27 months old. Can name all the flash cards, numbers, alphabet, shapes and colours but cant ask for a glass of water etc. This article makes so much sense. Thanks.

  4. Yasmeen on October 9, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    What about words that don’t have a real life object, like emotions or activities? I have found putting a picture of a car and a bed helpful for when we’re going for a car ride or when it’s bedtime. Trying to find collections of activities and emotions for my toddler has been difficult but I imagine with time and effort would achieve similar success. Please point me in the right direction.

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