Toddler Language Development
Background Information

Welcome! Here, you will learn about language development and easy tips to help encourage your child’s language development throughout the day. Children are people with individualized wants, needs, learning styles and personalities.  What works great for one child does not always work for the next. Therefore, I am not going to give you THE WAY to talk to your child. I don’t have any hidden secrets that all other professionals have never heard of.  I don’t have any magic fairy dust to make your child talk more.

In this membership site, I will share insider tips on strategies that speech language pathologists use with their clients, and put you, the parent or caregiver, in the front seat. You have the freedom to pick and choose which strategies will work best for your child. Empowering parents as their child’s best therapist is my goal.  

The techniques outlined here are designed to be used throughout the day, during all daily activities, to maximize language learning. They will help children to develop expressive and receptive language skills without making it look like work.

You will not find worksheets, flashcards, recommendations for apps, or television/computer programs. At this age, these avenues of learning ARE NOT RECOMMENDED! I’m very passionate about spreading the word on this issue. Children learn best when it takes place in a natural environment. When you break it down, it is truly a bit obvious. Functional communication does not happen while playing an app….there is no talking between two human beings! Worksheets and flashcards are not talking and talking is what we are trying to develop here!

Before we jump into techniques in the next section, it is important to learn the basics of language development. Knowing the theory is crucial when practicing language skills with your child.

Language Development Background

Our language skills, including speaking and understanding, are essential for expressing our ideas, understanding the world around us, learning in the classroom, forming relationships with friends and family, and being able to read and write. The development of language begins at birth and continues throughout our lives. The first few years of life are crucial since they create the building blocks for lifelong language development.

Language skills are made up of different areas:

  • Expressive Language (speaking)
  • Receptive Language (understanding)
  • Pragmatics (social use of language)

Each of these categories can be broken down even further. 

Expressive Language

Expressive language is what we say (vocabulary & morphology) and how we say it (syntax/grammar).

We use expressive language to talk with friends, explain ideas, express wants and needs, and tell stories. Since your child is just learning to say his/her first words, the techniques in this section will focus on vocabulary, listening skills, and early grammar skills. However, as these skills develop, word mechanics, sentence mechanics, and narrative skills become important. Therefore, all areas will be reviewed to paint a full picture of how language develops.

Vocabulary

Vocabulary is the content and meaning of what we say.

True vocabulary development is not just the ability to label pictures. Some 2 year olds can label 100 pictures but this doesn’t mean they fully understand each word. Can they can relate them together, describe attributes, categorize, etc? 

Strong vocabulary skills include the ability to:

  • Categorize words
  • Contrast and compare concepts
  • Describe attribute (shape, size color, feelings)
  • Identify location
  • Describe parts to a word/concepts

In this section, you will learn functional techniques to encourage first words. When learning words in a natural environment such as play, your child will start to develop these above mentioned vocabulary skills. However, these skills develop slowly over the years. Don’t worry about them at the moment. 

Word Mechanics

Word mechanics is a term that I created and this is a lesser known area of expressive language. However, it is equally as important.

The two components are:

  • Morphology (words)
  • Phonology (sounds)

Morphology refers to the structure of words and how a person adds different structures to word roots such as prefixes, suffixes affixes to change its meaning. 

For example: 

  • A child adds the ~ing to the word "run" to make the word "running"
  • A child adds an /s/ to the word "horse" to convey there are multiple "horses"
  • A child adds an -ed to a verb "bike" to convey that something in the past, "biked"
  • Etc….

Morphology is extremely important as it greatly alters the meaning of a message.

Phonology:

Phonology refers to the rules or organization of sounds in a language. There are certain sound combinations that just aren’t possible in a certain language. For example, Spanish doesn’t have the consonant /b/ at the end of words (final consonant). In English, we combine n with g (running) and this combination does not exist in other languages such as Spanish.

Phonological processes are patterns of errors that children typically use to simplify language output as they learn to talk. For example, a child may use a process called “cluster reduction” when saying a word such as “sport” (i.e., “port” for “sport”). Articulating two consonants is hard for a young child, so he/she just deletes one. This is normal until 4 years of age. After 4, it may be a sign of a phonological disorder and this child may need help organizing the sounds of his/her language. It is important to note that different phonological processes are expected to disappear at different ages.

Syntax

Syntax or grammar refers to how we put words together to make sentences and this is a crucial skill. Syntactic abilities include the following structures (morphology) at the sentence level:

  • Correct pronoun use (he/she)
  • Personal & reflexive pronouns (him/her/himself/herself)
  • Correct verb form (past, present, present progressive, future)
  • Subject verb agreement
  • Negation
  • Conjunctions/complex sentences
  • The list goes on…..

Narrative Skills

  • Storytelling is a complex language task that slowly develops over time.
  • Being able to tell a story is a crucial in order to:
  • Socialize
  • Relay past events
  • Share ideas/stories
  • Achieve academic success
  • Understand written information (reading comprehension)
  • Express feelings
  • Etc….

The main components of a narrative include:

  • Characters (who)
  • When (time)
  • Where (location)
  • Initiating Event (the problem)
  • Character Reaction (feelings)
  • Resolution (ending)

A child’s narrative language skills develop by listening to stories, telling stories, and sharing ideas. If your child is working on developing his/her first words or expanding those first words, you won’t be focusing on developing narrative skills quite yet. However, by engaging in conversation and reading with your child, you start to lay the foundation for building these very important skills. 

Receptive Language

Receptive language is what we understand. This includes understanding words, sentences, and stories.

We use receptive language skills to participate in conversations, learn in school, follow directions, and  understand stories. Our receptive language skills depend highly on our listening skills, language processing abilities, vocabulary, and working memory.

When discussing receptive language, there are 4 main areas to consider:

  • Following Directions
  • Understanding questions
  • Understanding grammar
  • Receptive vocabulary

Following Directions

The ability to follow directions is just how it sounds. Can a child understand and carry out a direction such as “open the box?”

To be able to follow a direction, a child must know:

  • Direction words such as open, first, second, after, before
  • Vocabulary: A child must know what a box is in order to find it and open it!
  • Have adequate attention needed to listen to the direction
  • Have adequate short term memory needed to listen to, comprehend, and retain the information long enough to carry out the direction.

There are different types of directions that require a special set of vocabulary understanding:

  • Spatial directions - Directions that have a spatial modifier (prepositions such as under, on, over, above.) “Put the cup under the table”
  • Temporal Directions - Directions that have a time constraint. “After you put on your shoes, open the door.”
  • Sequential /Multi-step Directions - Directions that require a child to carry out steps in a certain order and usually contain the words first, second, next, last, etc… “First, cut out the shapes. Then, glue them on the paper. Last, give the paper to me.”
  • Quantitative Directions - These directions specify the amount of something. “Give me a few grapes.” Or “Pick one animal.”

Many children who have trouble learning language will have a lot of trouble learning these direction words and have to be directly taught them. 

Understanding Questions

Understanding questions refers to a child’s ability to answer “WH” questions such as who, where, when, what, why, and how. This is a CRUCIAL skill necessary to demonstrate academic knowledge, participate in conversations with teachers/peers, socialize, make friends, etc….

This ability again depends on many foundational language skills such as understanding grammar, vocabulary, and attention. 

Understanding Grammar

The ability to understand grammatical structures (word and sentence level) is exactly what is sounds like….

From day one of birth (or even before), a children are listening to their native language and learning grammatical structures. For example, at birth, children start to learn nouns and then verbs. As they grow, they start to learn morphology (changes in word endings) such as present (eat), past tense (ate), future (will eat), and present progressive (is eating) verb forms and things progress from there! Children must also understand sentence level grammar (syntax) noun-verb agreement (a child runs NOT a child run), use of pronouns (I can do it by myself), etc…

Many children with any sort of language delay may have trouble with grammar (understanding and speaking).

Understanding Vocabulary

The ability to understand vocabulary again is just what it sounds like! This is a simple but yet very powerful receptive language skill. Content makes up a large percentage of our communication. If we don’t understand words, we can’t follow directions, understand stories, participate in conversations, or express our ideas effectively!

Usually, children will develop receptive vocabulary before speaking.

Pragmatic Language

There are many aspects to social language that lie beneath the surface.

For example, a child says “hi” differently depending on their communication partners (friends, teachers, parents). Sometimes it is socially acceptable to wave to friends and sometimes is is acceptable to say “hi” with a hug. This will depend on the level of the friendship and the comfort level of your communication partner.

Language is used for many social purposes such as:

  • Greeting others
  • Asking/answering questions
  • Requesting/asking
  • Giving information
  • Making appropriate jokes
  • Participating in conversations
  • Asking questions
  • Maintaining topics
  • Answering questions
  • Making comments
  • Telling stories
  • Recognizing when listeners misunderstood and rephrase
  • Recognizing if listeners are bored
  • Stopping to answer questions
  • Allowing others to participate

These are just a few areas of pragmatic language. The tricky part about pragmatics is that it can’t be tested with a paper and pencil. Pragmatic language skills are completely dependent on the social situation.

The other factors to consider are….

  • Is the child having trouble socializing with friends or does he/she just not have the language skills needed to understand the conversation (receptive language deficit)?
  • Is the child wanting to answer a question but doesn’t have the vocabulary needed to do so (expressive language deficit)?
  • Does the child want to have friends but his attention is very short, preventing him/her from engaging in games?

How to Help Pragmatic Language

There is NO COOKIE cutter program for this area of language. It depends on your child's skills, goals, and language abilities.

It is always a good rule of thumb to model:

  • Basic social skills
  • Personal body awareness
  • Turn taking
  • Asking questions

You can start to model these skills at birth.

What You Need To Focus on Today

Most children who are late talkers are under three years of age. This means the main focus of language development is on understanding words and sentences, expressing ideas, and interacting socially. Therefore, this section will focus on the development of these areas.

We all learn most effectively when information is presented during meaningful and relevant activities.  Children learn best through play and daily routines, since these activities are the most relevant to them. At this age, children do not have the capacity to—and therefore shouldn’t—learn through drill practice or any “school-like” teaching. Learning in a school-like environment will be slower and, most likely, much frustration will ensue. 

Play is extremely critical to children’s learning and shouldn’t be taken lightly. As a bonus, I added a section on play, due to its immense importance. We need to make playtime as productive as possible.

In this section, you will learn:

  • Correct body positioning
  • Appropriate conversation styles
  • How to correct common mistakes
  • Proven language therapy techniques 
  • My favorite language games
  • Tips on how to best play with your child
  • Play ideas based on your child’s age

In the section, you will be provided with:

  • Functional games to practice the above mentioned skills 
  • Example scripts to help illustrate language techniques
  • Research proven strategies to help boost language development

How To Use This Section Effectively:

  • Browse through this section first in its entirety to get a feel for all the techniques and how they build on each other.
  • After browsing, go back to the first section and read it one more time.
  • Next, print off an activity and try it for a few days. It is not recommended to do more than one activity in a day.
  • Try a new activity each week
  • Make notes on what works and what doesn’t. 
  • Jot down progress to keep you motivated!

Disclaimer: This book does not diagnose a language delay or disorder. The tips in this book can help a child with or without a language delay. However, if your child has a language delay, it is crucial to determine individual goals. Therefore, if you have concerns, please schedule an evaluation with a pediatric speech language pathologist.




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