5 Ways to promote your toddler’s language development

  By Amy Hayes Speech – Language Therapist

The toddler years can be a fun, frustrating, inspiring and unforgettable time. Your little ones are learning to become more independent, make choices and communicate their needs and wants.

However, they do not yet have the capacity to meet all the demands of every day life, especially in the area of communication.

It is a lot easier to point, cry or shout “no” rather than to use words to convey their messages. When frustrations increase, tantrums may arise.

As parents it is our job to interpret our children’s emotions and assess the environment to “break the hidden code” of what they are actually trying to communicate. Not always an easy job!

Language development can be promoted through everyday routine activities, including chores, reading and play. Here are 5 ways to keep your child on the right track:

1. Expose
Try to expose your child to interesting experiences that require meaningful interaction with others. You don’t necessarily need to spend money on this. Often, the simpler the activity the more opportunities there are to interact. Walks around the neighbourhood, picnics in the garden, a tea party at granny’s house, baking together or doing a craft are simple and easy ways to promote meaningful interaction.

Take turns asking questions, see what interests them and show delight in their participation and attempts to communicate. Describe the environment. Listen to what your child has to say and complement this by exposing them to new words.

2. Observe
What is your child looking at? What are they pointing to? It might not be the desired activity you were intending, but if your child is more interested in the ants crawling on the table than the playdough activity you have set out, that’s where you need to direct your focus.
Children will communicate about things that fascinate them. Things that intrigue them. Things that excite them. So follow their lead and be flexible.

3. Model

Your children are listening to you and learning from you. Let them see you communicating effectively. Model clear, precise speech. Use interesting vocabulary. Let your child see you asking questions, taking turns in conversations and using facial expressions. When playing or interacting with them, use words to narrate what you are doing.

Try to keep your sentences short, simple and fun. For example, when baking together: “Oh look! This dough is sticky. I’m going to add some more milk. Here we go… Mix, mix, mix! Now you have a turn. Mix, mix, mix!”

4. Expand

When your child says a word or a sentence, expand on it. For example, your child might say: “More”. You could say “More biscuits? I want more biscuits please Mommy”. Model the sentence for them and encourage them to repeat it after you. Praise their attempts, even when they are not perfect.

5. Repeat

Children love familiarity and being able to predict words and events, so reading the same story or singing the same song over and over again is great for their general language development. Music and books are two fantastic ways to promote this. Familiar songs and nursery rhymes help your child with the rhythm of speech, vocabulary and sentence structure. Spend time looking at the pictures together. Talk about the story and try to link it to your child’s own experiences. For example: “Look how greedy this caterpillar is! Do you remember eating all that cake at the party? You felt very full. I bet the caterpillar also feels very full.”

Let your child be an active participant in the story. In summary, you don’t need to set aside hours and hours to enhance your child’s language skills. Be mindful of building up their language during every day activities. Talk to your child about what is going on around you. Pay attention to what they are interested in and give them your attention. Try to limit screen time where possible at this age (including your own). When talking to your children, put down your phone, get down to their level and look them in the eyes. Remember, you are modelling good communication skills and you are their whole world. If you are concerned about your child’s speech or language development, it may be beneficial to discuss this with a speech-language therapist or your family doctor/ paediatrician.

There are a number of things to consider, including where they are at compared to their peers of the same age, the number of languages they are exposed to on a regular basis, as well as family history of speech or language disorders. A hearing test may also be something to consider, especially if your child is prone to recurrent middle ear infections.

Amy Hayes is a Speech-Language Therapist and mom of two based in Nelspruit. She has 15 years experience working with children, both locally and in Canada and Ireland. She has a special interest in early speech and language intervention and literacy development. Email:

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