Worried that your toddler isn’t saying many words? Learn how to encourage late talkers to communicate with simple and effective activities.
When my little guy was a baby, people kept telling us, “Oh, he’s going to be an early talker, just listen to him babble!” I agreed, up until his 15-month appointment when his pediatrician asked the question that changed my mind:
“How many words does he say?”
“Umm…” I stammered. “Maybe three?” Even after I responded I knew I wasn’t being completely accurate.
You see, his three words weren’t words so much as babbles. He would say “mamama…” but without any direct correlation to me (or anything else, really), but because it sounded close to “mama” I counted it as a word. The other two were just as incoherent.
The pediatrician was hoping he was saying three clear words, and that most 18-month-olds say an average of 10 words, with two-year-olds an average of 50.
When I couldn’t even coax three clear words out of my toddler, I launched into full-on worry mode. “What could be causing his delay?” my husband and I asked ourselves.
I Googled possible causes for speech delay (never Google anything while you are worried) and I came up with a slew of issues that I began to worry about. Is he social enough? How come he prefers books nowadays instead of cuddling with us? Why doesn’t he smile as often as his little cousin?
How to encourage late talkers
The biggest downside wasn’t even the stress I put on myself or the hours researching symptoms my toddler hadn’t even been diagnosed with yet. It was my growing impatience and lack of faith in him.
The day we arrived home from the doctor’s appointment, I embarked on a mission to get my toddler talk. I held up a ball and made sure he was looking at me and said, “This is a BALL. Baaaaaall. Can you say ‘ball’? Say ‘ball’.”
As you might guess, he had no patience for that kind of teaching. He brushed me aside and even got impatient with me. And that’s when I realized I needed to take a step back. I had to be his biggest advocate, not someone pressuring him to perform.
I needed to guide him through these activities while respecting his learning curve. I’m thankful I was able to see that early on because I would’ve hated nagging him all because of a worry.
Pressuring your child to talk was clearly not working, so what did I do instead? Take a look at several activities to help toddlers talk. These are far more supportive and effective at encouraging your toddler’s speech development than adding unnecessary worry and stress:
Expand your toddler’s communication
Whether your child is already saying a few words or not, he is communicating with you. His one word might be “ball,” or he could have no words and relies on pointing to the ball to say he wants it. Regardless of how many words he uses, expand on the way he has just communicated.
For instance, if he says “ball,” you might respond with, “Yes, you’re holding the ball.” If he points to it, you can say, “Do you want the ball? Let me get it for you.”
You’re saying the main word, “ball,” and repeating it back to him in context. You’re expanding on how he’s conveying his thoughts with new words he can learn. Hearing you speak not only focuses on a respectful two-way communication, but allows him to listen to a wider vocabulary.
Describe what your toddler is doing
One of the best ways to introduce words to your toddler is to describe what he’s doing, especially during play. Think of yourself as a sportscaster narrating what you see happening without placing judgment on what you see.
For instance, you can say, “You’re trying to put the triangle shape into the hole,” and not “That’s too hard for you” (or not saying anything at all and just doing it for him). Describe his actions so he can relate the words he hears to what he’s doing.
And make your conversations meaningful. Look for clues that he’s interested in having you describe his actions, such as turning to look at you. If he seems bothered or would rather have silence or no interruptions, save the conversation for another time.
Another option besides narrating his actions is to describe your own. Talk about what you’re doing, and again, in a realistic, non-exaggerated manner. You don’t need to fill every second with words, but do speak as you would if he were any other person with you.
You can talk about the items you’re putting in the shopping cart, or how you’re chopping up carrots. You’re not showering him with words so much as communicating as you would with anyone else.
Don’t make the mistake I did when I kept saying “ball” over and over to my toddler, thinking he’d magically repeat it after me.
It doesn’t work that way.
“Dumbing down” the way we speak to kids sounds disrespectful, as if they can’t understand or hear what we say.
Instead, talk normal. Rather than exaggerating your words, speak slowly or use casual and conversational words. You’re exposing him to new words without assuming he has no clue what you’re talking about.
And don’t babble back if your toddler says a string of incoherent sounds. This not only diminishes what he’s trying to communicate, but doesn’t provide the words he can model.
Rather than babbling, describe what you see: “You like your teddy bear, don’t you?” or “Looks like you’ve got a lot to say!”
Give your toddler the opportunity to talk
Many of us know our kids so well that we can anticipate every want or need. We know to provide their cup of water at every meal without bothering to ask them if they want it. We have everything on hand long before they even have to ask for it.
Trouble is, anticipating their needs doesn’t provide the opportunity for your child to communicate.
Let’s say you know your child wants to play with Lego but he can’t open the box himself. In the past, you may have opened the lid for him the minute you saw him heading to the box.
Instead, wait for him to communicate that he wants the box opened. He might grunt, turn to look at you, or bang at the lid, but at least he has the chance to communicate. You can then respond with, “Do you want me to open the box? Sure, let me get the lid off.”
Mention the items you talk about in your conversations in a natural way. Let’s say he’s having a snack. You can say, “Do you like the orange? I like oranges, too.”
There’s no need to repeat the word “orange” over and over. You run the risk of dumbing down your conversation. Instead, find a balance between labeling the items your child sees with having a normal conversation about them.
Wait and listen
Just because kids can’t say words, doesn’t mean we should take over the conversation.
Wait for your toddler to respond, in whatever way he can. If that’s a word, a grunt or a pointed finger, he’s communicating the way he knows how. Give him the chance and the time to respond to your side of the conversation.
Then, listen to what he says. Don’t assume you know what he wants and instead listen to his response. He learns that a conversation is a two-way communication between two people, not one.
And make eye contact when you speak. This forces you to take into consideration his point of view and shows you respect his time and effort.
Play communication games
Play is one of the best ways to encourage your toddler’s speech development, and many don’t always involve saying words. With these games, he learns to imitate and respond to someone else:
- Have your toddler copy actions in nursery songs, such as The Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Hokey Pokey or The Wheels on the Bus
- Clap and encourage your toddler to clap as well after he has done something he’s proud of
- Wave “hi” and “bye,” even if you’re at home playing a game of hide and seek
- Make animal sounds, pointing or describing the animal that makes the sound
- Read aloud—I can’t say enough about the benefits of reading every day, including helping your toddler’s speech development
Want a list of the best books to read aloud with your toddler? Join my newsletter and download your Read Aloud Book List—at no cost to you. You’ll get hundreds of favorite selections, perfect for introducing words and developing a love of reading:
Don’t test or correct
As tempting as it is to test or correct your toddler, don’t. Neither will help him speak and can even discourage him from making progress.
For instance, don’t go through items in your home testing to see how well he can say them. You’ll stress yourself out more if he can’t come up with the words or mistakes them for another (trust me, I know).
And if he does make a mistake, don’t correct him. In his book, Learning All the Time (affiliate link), John Holt writes:
“When children first learn to talk, they will often use the name of one object to refer to a whole class of similar objects. In other words, when a toddler refers to every animal as a ‘dog,’ she isn’t indicating that she doesn’t know the difference.
“If a distinguished person from a foreign country were visiting you, you would not correct every mistake he made in English, however much he might want to learn the language, because it would be rude. We do not think of rudeness or courtesy as being applicable to our dealings with very little children. But they are.”
Your toddler calling the cat a “dog” is an accomplishment on its own. He has somehow discerned that four-legged animals look similar and has categorized them under a word he can say—”dog.” Don’t discount the progress he has made because he’s only using one word for all of them.
I continued to work with my toddler’s speech development, pushing the worry aside and focusing on encouraging him in a positive way.
And one day, he did it. While eating bananas, he said, “Nana.” Leave it to my food-loving toddler to assign the beloved first word to a favorite fruit. The flow of new words erased all those months of worry. I began writing his new words until the list grew too long that I stopped keeping count.
Turns out, I had subjected myself to needless worry.
After all, worry has never done me any good especially when all my toddler needed was some time and help. So yes, I should have asked, “Can you say ‘ball’?” but with a smile, a pair of gentle eyes and a more patient, encouraging and worry-free attitude.
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Tell me in the comments: What are your biggest struggles with helping late talkers communicate?
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