You may already know about the correlation between how much language a child hears in their first few years and their later vocabulary, IQ, academic abilities, and even post-school success. Recent findings suggest that it’s the more nuanced elements of language—tone, quality, manner, and environment—that play such a significant role, rather than the sheer volume of words.
A lot of this learning may not yet be apparent; at this age they are understanding—but not yet speaking—many new words each day.
Here are some specific ways you can help your toddler’s language comprehension:
Use rich language
- Your toddler is ready for more vocabulary than you might think. Describe what you see as specifically as possible. You could say “look at that monarch butterfly, flying over those flowers.”
- Use words like "humongous" instead of "big.”
- Use outings to introduce new words, like "kneading" at a pizza restaurant.
- Avoid editing and simplifying complex words in books—the context provided by your reading and the pictures helps children start to make sense of words they won’t fully integrate until later.
- Don’t feel obligated to stick to the text. It’s okay to interrupt the story to comment spontaneously on what you and your toddler see in the pictures. “Ooooh! Can you point to the dog? Woof” or “I see the moon behind the window pane. Do you see the moon?” Many toddlers do not have the attention span to listen to a story and will remain much more engaged if you are more flexible with how you use the book.
Dialogue (not monologue)
Give them space to communicate. Try not to jump in and supply words right away. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience by researchers at Harvard University and M.I.T. found that “differences in the number of ‘conversational turns’ accounted for a large portion of the differences in brain physiology and language skills that they found among the children. This finding applied to children regardless of parental income or education.”
Build on what they are saying
If you can see what they’re looking at or understand what they’re trying to tell you, expand upon it, allowing time for your toddler to respond. If they say “baw” (“ball”), try saying “yes, baw. Look at the ball over there. It’s orange, do you see it?” Wait for them to respond and then you could add something: “the orange ball is moving so fast!”
By repeating your toddler’s version of the word and then modeling the actual word, you are affirming your child’s speech attempt and then linking it to the correct pronunciation. In this way, you honor your child’s early speech while building their competence.
Narrate your time together
Talk about everything you are doing together. You can do this anytime, anywhere. At the store, you might say something like: “we need to get some apples. See the red and green apples over there? I like the tart green ones but I know you like the sweet red ones. Can you help me put four apples into our bag? One, two, three, four!”
Repeat, repeat, repeat
Toddlers learn from repetition. Reading the same books, singing the same songs, and naming the same objects over and over again helps them understand.
Use proper names in addition to pronouns like “mine, yours, hers,” etc
At first, say “this is Bea’s bunny,” instead of saying “this is your bunny.” Pronouns can be confusing to your toddler in the early stages of language development.
They will start to use “I” or “me” consistently when they are two or three years old. As your toddler grows, you can help them make the connection between their name and their pronoun by saying: “this is Bea’s bunny, this is your bunny.”