Babies’ first few recognizable words are memorable, inciting video calls to Grandma, proud social media posts and the like. From there, the excitement continues: Individuals vary, of course, but a spoken vocabulary of a handful of words at age one usually balloons to 50-100 words by age two and skyrockets to 250-500 words or more by age three. More words means a toddler can better express needs, wants, thoughts, and feelings, which goes a long way towards building relationships and demystifying tantrums. (Granted, there will still be tantrums, but at least you’ll have a better idea about why.) Research clearly shows that interactions with parents and caregivers play a crucial role in children’s language development. So what can adults do to offer toddlers what Stanford psychologist Anne Fernald calls “linguistic nutrition and exercise?” Here are some science-backed ideas:
Let your toddler lead the read-aloud.
It’s no secret that sharing books is important, but adults can make the most of read-aloud time by keeping language development in mind. In Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, a fascinating review of research on the power of parent talk, Dr. Dana Suskind highlights the importance of “Tuning In” to the child’s focus to maximize learning. Doing this while reading aloud to a toddler may mean letting go of the idea that storytime always means reading a book as written to a patient listener. My toddler son routinely obsesses over the birds in each illustration of Little Blue Truck. Fellow lovers of this title know that birds are possibly the only animals not mentioned in the text. Even so, we’ve used many new words and phrases when we’ve “tuned in” to his focus on those birds. When we read another favorite, Spot Goes to the Farm, he “neighs” with excitement about finding the page with the horse. Again, this isn’t the focus of the book as written, but move over, Spot — we’ve introduced lots of additional language by examining each page in search of that unsung equine hero.
Harness the power of “That’s ME!”
Toddlers, as any parent or caregiver knows, are notorious narcissists. You can’t really blame them, since they probably star in most of the videos and photos on your phone. In addition to preserving memories of that chubby sweetness, documentation of your child’s life is a language-boosting goldmine. Use another edict from Dr. Suskind: “Talk More.” When your toddler points to “Cake!” in a birthday photo, respond with, “You had a birthday! You ate chocolate cake! It was so good! Yum, yum, yum!”
Take your conversation even further by telling the “story” of a photo, series of photos, or a video; research has shown that encouraging the use of narrative language has huge benefits for children’s verbal abilities. Earn bonus points if your stories include descriptions of feelings. Building emotional vocabulary has a whole host of benefits, like helping children recognize emotions in themselves and others, and helping them work through tough experiences. When my oldest son was a toddler, I took him with me to get my tire repaired. I happened to snap a photo of him checking out the garage — right before a loud sound absolutely terrified him, leading to epic tears. Once we were safely home, though, the photo was the perfect prompt for telling the story of “the loud drill at the tire store that was so scary” many, many times over.
Serve Up Open-Ended Questions
Ample research demonstrates the development-boosting power of “serve and return” exchanges with babies and young children. To help toddlers get the most out of this conversational ping pong, focus on the type of follow-up questions you might ask your child when she or he exclaims while zooming a toy car or declares it’s time for a doll to “go night-night.” Dr. Suskind points out that while any question encourages interaction, the responses to yes-or-no questions, and even “What…” questions, are generally limited to words a child already knows. Asking, “How can this car get past this chair?” or “Why is Baby Doll so tired?” invites a whole new set of conversations. Pretty soon, Baby Doll will have no chance of napping through all that chatter.
Do you have a favorite tip for helping little ones learn to communicate? Share it in the comments below!