elevating child care

Ten Best Ways To Encourage Toddlers To Talk

First, let’s clarify something that will hopefully bring relief: Encouraging our children to talk isn’t about chattering incessantly to them in order to expose them to as many words as possible (30,000 by 3 years old is the magic number, according to some experts). 
If you hear this advice, don’t listen, because your babies won’t either. Honestly, can you think of anything more off-putting than someone blabbering for the sake of blabbering?  Even our adoring babies, the captive audiences they are, will tune out (because they’re unable to throw something or ask you to stop).

On the other hand, it’s true that encouraging language development is about the quality and quantity of the words we speak. The great news is that both come naturally when we perceive babies as whole people — able communicators ready to be informed about the happenings in their lives, and in turn share their thoughts and feelings. Comprehend this simple truth, interact naturally, and we’ve got the language lessons nailed.

Here are some specifics…

1. Two-way communication from the beginning.

From the time our babies are born, they need to know that we not only tell them what’s happening (“I’m going to pick you up now”), but also that we pay attention to their non-verbal signals and listen to their sounds and cries. If we’re unsure, we wait before reacting. We ask, give the child time to take our question in, and listen again. We make every attempt to understand what our babies might be communicating. We won’t always be successful in the beginning, but we’ll improve with each try. Meanwhile our children hear our profoundly important message: “We want you to tell us what you need and feel.  We believe you are capable of communicating with us, and we will do our best to understand you.”

This is vital. Only we can open this door and wholeheartedly welcome our baby’s communication.

2. Use your authentic voice and first person.

Many believe in using mother-ese, so I realize this is controversial, but here’s what I’ve found… Talking to our babies in our regular, authentic voice (but a little slower) reminds us that we are talking to a whole person.  It’s easier and not as likely to induce headaches (which I know, because I talk to my dog in mother-ese). It models for babies the natural tone and language we want them to adopt.  The more they hear language spoken properly, the sooner they will learn and try speaking it.

Children sense inauthenticity a mile away. The children I know who aren’t used to being talked to in mother-ese feel disrespected and talked down to when adults speak to them that way.

Using first person rather than “Mommy loves Johnny” is a minor detail, but it is another way to remind ourselves to talk person-to-person with our baby.  Why speak differently to a baby or toddler who is immersed in the process of learning our language than we would to an older child or adult? This makes no sense to me.  Never doubt for a moment that babies know who Mommy, Daddy and Johnny are.  They don’t need the constant reminders. Also, children understand and use pronouns earlier when they are modeled.

3. Talk about real, meaningful things.

In other words, instead of teaching words, use them.  Holding up a ball, pointing to it and saying “ball” is far less effective teaching (besides being a gargantuan bore, as far as I’m concerned) than commenting in context on a relevant (and, therefore, meaningful) event. “You moved all the way to that red ball and touched it and then it rolled further away.”

Babies learn best , as we all do, when they care, and in this example the baby would probably care about his involvement with the words ‘moved’, ‘red ball’, ‘touched’, ‘rolled’ and ‘away’.  That’s six words right there, but who’s counting? (Oh, the experts…that’s right.)

Note: I’m not suggesting constant narration while babies play. The best way to gauge whether or not to comment while our child is engaged in an activity is to wait for him or her to communicate an interest in our response, which young children usually do by looking at us.  (For a brief video demonstration of this, please see “Teaching Babies Language And Much, Much More While They Play“)

4. Read books and tell stories responsively

Reading books responsively means ditching any agenda and following our child’s interest. Let the baby or toddler stay on one page for five minutes if she wants to and talk to her about everything you see there. Let her skip pages, look at the book upside down, and not finish the story (or even look at the book at all) if that’s what she chooses.  Trust your child’s readiness, allow reading to be child-led, and we encourage a love of books. And children who love books love and use language.

If you’re the creative type (which I’m usually not at the end of the day), tell stories. I’ll never forget the stories my dad told about Mary and her dog Zip.  Well, actually I don’t remember anything about them except that I thoroughly enjoyed that attention from my dad.

5. Slow down

I forget this all the time. We should probably put “Slow Down” signs all over the house when our children are small. There are so many good reasons to slow down around children, especially in regard to language.  When we slow down, children can listen and understand.

6. Relax and be patient

Parent worries are usually felt by young children and don’t create the ideal climate for taking big developmental strides forward.  Talking takes courage.  Relax, be patient and trust your child’s inborn timetable. Many patient parents I know have experienced their child’s verbal skills emerge overnight – a language “explosion”.

If your child seems delayed in his or her ability to comprehend language, or seems atypical in several areas of development, get an assessment.

7. Don’t test

What children need most of all to be able to start talking (or do just about anything else) is our trust.  When we test, we aren’t trusting or respecting.  Magda Gerber’s rule of thumb was, “Don’t ask children a question you know the answer to.” (In other words, “Where is your nose?”)

As excited as we get about sharing the adorable way our toddler pronounces his latest words (“Say ‘turtle’ for Grandma, Johnny!”), performance pressure makes toddlers more likely to clam up.

8.  Babbling is talking

When babies or toddlers seem to be talking gibberish, they are usually saying words, so ignoring them or babbling back isn’t as respectful or encouraging as saying, “You’re telling me something. Are you telling me about the cat that just walked by?” Or, “You’ve got a lot to say today. “

Beware of these common language discouragers

9. Corrections

When children are trying out language, they are inclined to get colors, animals, and other things “wrong”, and adults are inclined to correct these mistakes. Don’t.  It’s unnecessary and discouraging.  With our patience and modeling, toddlers will discern the difference between dogs and bears, red and orange, etc., soon enough.

In Learning All The Time, John Holt explains: “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.” –John Holt

10.  Invalidating thoughts and feelings

Let’s say your toddler asks (in her unique way) to change her diaper, but you check and she isn’t wet. Or maybe your boy says “lellon”, and you know he loves melon, but he just ate.  Rather than reflexively responding “you don’t need your diaper changed” or “you can’t be hungry, you just ate”, accept and acknowledge the communication without the slightest bit of judgment.  “Oh, are you saying you want to change your diaper?” (Wait for a response.) “Yes? Well, I can certainly understand wanting to do that again. It’s fun to spend that time together. But you are dry and so we won’t be changing you right now. Maybe in a few minutes.”

“Are you thinking about melon?” (Wait for a response.) “Are you hungry for melon?  (Wait.) Oh, you’re not hungry? Are you enjoying saying “melon”?  That’s a fun word to say, isn’t it?”

When we listen to and respect these early attempts at communication, children feel encouraged to keep talking. They’ll sense that their most random thoughts, feelings and ideas are welcome to our ears.  And chances are excellent we’ll be their favorite confidant for many years to come.

(Note: if you have concerns about your child’s language development, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers helpful guidelines HERE)

I share more about respectful care and natural development in my book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)

(Photo by Diego Dalmaso on Flickr)

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119 Responses to “Ten Best Ways To Encourage Toddlers To Talk”

  1. avatar Kristin says:

    This was such an encouraging read. My 24 month old is so smart. She says some words and I’m sure she says more than I think.. that I just don’t understand some of what she says. My pediatrician says I need to encourage talking more because she doesn’t use 2 word sentences yet. I feel like a terrible mother for not working with her very much until now. I know she knows these things (like nose, various colors, ect..) but she won’t say them. She did this with walking too. We knew she could do it for a month before she finally decided to do it. It’s like she knows that once she starts it there will be the expectation of keeping it up, so she keeps it all locked up in her mind. Is this normal? What can I do to help her? I also have a 2 month old, so could this partially be a regression?

    Thanks so much again

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Kristin! “I know she knows these things (like nose, various colors, ect..) but she won’t say them.” Does this mean you ask her to say those words? That kind of subtle quizzing can create pressure, especially for brighter, more sensitive children. New siblings can also create pressure and a stronger need to resist the parents… which is all the more reason that asking her to say the names of things, etc., can actually make her more hesitant to speak. I wouldn’t push her at all, but when she does verbalize, I would let her know you are trying your very best to understand what she’s saying. That will encourage her. I have the feeling she has a lot to say!

    • avatar humaira agha says:

      Hi Kristin. I felt like I was reading about myself. My son is 2.11 and he’s only saying some words. Gibberish too. I think too much tv did this. Doctor advised us to involve him in everything that we do.

  2. avatar Xiomara says:

    Thank you so much for this great post.
    I was wondering, maybe you can help me figure this out. By nature i am not a outspoken person. I reader write, illustrate on the computer or take photohgraphs. Yes, i do talk, but not that much.
    I have a 1 year old boy and i really try to talk to him about the things i see or he sees. What he is doing or i am, but i find it really hard and sometimes (sorry to say) quite tiering. Cause i am not used to this.

    How can i change this? I dont want my baby to be like me.

    on a side note: He jibber jabbers a lot. Sometimes says momma or dadda. But alot of jibber jabber.

    thank you

    • avatar Xiomara says:

      Oops, sorry for the spelling mistakes. I am not a native english speaker.

      • avatar janet says:

        Hi Xiomara! Remember that jibber jabber is language… So, I would be responsive and curious as to what he is saying. Let him know you want him to tell you his thoughts. It is so much easier to care for a child who can tell you what he wants and needs, right? Perhaps that could be your motivation.

        Yes, this may require a bit more talking than you are entirely comfortable with, but you need only talk when you have something to say or ask that is meaningful and authentic. You never need to talk for the sake of talking.

  3. avatar aleshia says:

    this acticle was really awesome .. really gave me some ideas to get my three year old and my two year old sons to start talking mmore thanks a bunch . I guess sincei had them so close in age that they are fighting for attention these days and its so hard to just separate them so I can do that .

  4. avatar Sawyer says:

    Unfortunately, I found a few flaws in this article, or rather misconceptions.

    As a speech therapist for children, I’ve spent many years researching and working with children’s speech development. Many parents fear way too much about how they speak to their children and if they “understand”.

    3, 7, and 9 are more opinionated then a suggestion. We encourage parents to start simple then gain more complex terms as the child begins to understand. The “snowball” effect. Start with “ball” then go to “red ball” then “throw red ball” then “throw the red ball please.” etc. It’s always good to, not exactly “test” but “practice” with your children’s new found words. Make them a game and congratulate them. As a toddler gets older, you should begin to correct the words they know well, because if not, then they’ll assume that the words you’ve been allowing them to say is the correct words and will be reluctant to change. (not only that, but it will help you avoid future stresses with schools).

    I appreciate your article and the fact that you are trying to help parents. Just be sure to not mix opinions with facts, since parents already have enough to stress over.

    • avatar janet says:

      You are welcome to share your opinions and approach. Mine are also based on many years of research, and this research has clearly demonstrated that children absorb language naturally… They don’t need their parents to provide lessons and behave robotically. “Ball.” “Red ball”. “Throw red ball”. Who talks like this? Children know we don’t speak this way. They’ve listened to us from day one. They need us to be language models, not force feeders.

      Natural learning is excellent news for parents, because it is certainly less stressful than worrying about “today’s speech lesson”. All that’s needed is an abundance of respectful human communication, ideally from birth, which is also the best way to build a relationship with our children…and the secret to easier, more enjoyable parenting!

  5. avatar Becca says:

    It isn’t always that simple and there is nothing worse than being told not to worry your child will eventually talk only to find out 12-18mths later you actually had every right to worry because they actually have Verbal Dyspraxia (or Childhood Apraixa Of Speech, depending on the preferred terminology and/or the country you live in) and will require months or in our case years of speech therapy.

  6. avatar Carl says:

    “8. Babbling is talking

    When babies or toddlers seem to be talking gibberish, they are usually saying words, so ignoring them or babbling back isn’t as respectful or encouraging as saying, “You’re telling me something. Are you telling me about the cat that just walked by?” Or, “You’ve got a lot to say today. “”

    I can’t quite remember the source but I clearly remember reading that it’s good to mimic the sounds (babbling or baby talk) sometimes, in order to encourage communication before they are able to form their first words. Of course, it wasn’t suggested that’s all you should do, you should also speak normally etc… comments on this?

    • avatar janet says:

      The study showed that conversing with babies was far more important and effective than just saying words or talking at them. So, if that means babbling back, that’s better than nothing. :) But I’m with John Holt in his analogy… imagining children are foreigners attempting to speak our language. Would you imitate the foreigner or attempt to understand and converse?

  7. avatar Carl says:

    Sorry for the multiple replies but, “When children are trying out language, they are inclined to get colors, animals, and other things “wrong”, and adults are inclined to correct these mistakes. Don’t.”

    This strikes me as wrong, recasting is an important part of learning a language, you said “don’t ” but I’m sure what you meant was “don’t correct EVERY mistake.” correct? Recasting to correct an accent (in the case of a bi-lingual family where one parent may have said a word in their second language wrong and passed it on) can be very beneficial.

  8. avatar Pricilla says:

    I am a nanny of too many years to count, not a speech therapist like Sawyer, but I agree on the same numbers referenced.

    But I think it’s a mix between what you two are saying. If I touch a ball to pass to a toddler, I’ll say, “I’ve got the ball. Do you want the ball? And depending one where they are verbally i either will stop with a “yes” or go on with “can you say ball?” No matter what,I’m going to pass them the ball, but I am going to encourage them speaking.

    Same with the nose one. I think you need to know the child. Some will absolutely clam up when you try to show off their skills, some won’t. If they’re willing, why not take it as an opportunity to practice enunciating (sp?) words?

    As for #9 I think those are two different scenarios presented by Holt. If we are in charge of someone’s learning, we have every right to correct them. Of course we wouldn’t say, “You’re wrong” but we could show through example (as you’ve mentioned before) by referencing the same thing. If you are meeting someone new who has not specifically asked you for help, then yes, you butt out and do not correct because that would be rude.

    Anyways, I really do love this article as it is extremely helpful, and solidifies I’ve been doing it right 😉

  9. avatar Patricia Carrega says:

    Hi im looking for answers my boy is 27 months old I can see he os very clever he does everything I ask like go get ur slippers in the coubord fetch the red ball get ur pj’s he points ppl out on fotos that he knows but speak words nothing he points to things that he wants. He say mama, ball, bye, soon, small things like that but nothing els what can I do to help him talk a bit?

  10. avatar Lei Cruz says:

    Everyone in the house are forcing me to teach my son how to speak. I always tell them that he knows it. He speaks what he wants and when he likes. I just don’t want to force him, coz he still can’t understand us. They have fear that my son will not talk. But i told them that he Talks gibberish and proper sometimes, distinguishing what’s in front of him. So i guess patience is all we have mom’s. And guidance. Well i just keep on researching on what’s best for my baby. Though its hard especially for a first time mom like me. Thanks for this good information.

    • avatar janet says:

      They’ve all forgotten what it’s like to learn something new… Or don’t see him as a person yet. Hang in there! What you do will matter most.

  11. avatar Fernanda says:

    Hi dear Janet, have you seen this and/or any similar articles?


    My particular dilemma lays on discerning if early diagnosis is beneficial for babies since it allows immediate therapies and interventions when their neuro-plasticity is at its best, or… if this trend is over-diagnosing children whom, given the right time, would had developed as completely healthy children. I am aware I am simplifying in “white and black” here and there is a wide gray spectrum in between. But in the end, I believe our society might be tending to simplify healthy early development quite easily.

    I´d love to hear your voice on this issue.

    Much love, as always,

  12. avatar Belinda says:

    My 2 1/2 year old is not speaking, he understands many things and indicates that he understands by pointing and making sounds hardly any words. However, sometimes he will say Bye, or his brothers name I am worried because I think he should be saying more words by now. What can my husband and I do to help?

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