Toddler Language Development Activities

Speech and language develops through human interaction. Toddlers learn language in the context of meaningful interactions with those around them. 

That means that YOU are the most important language activity!

Keep reading to learn a few easy ways that you can enrich everyday language experiences for your toddler at home.

 Toddler Language Activities Ideas

Talk Directly to Your Toddler Throughout the Day

A study of daily language interactions at home found that toddlers who experienced more child-directed speech at 19 months had larger vocabularies by 24 months.

Basically, it’s not enough for toddlers just to hear language around them. You need to talk directly to your toddler.

It’s thought that child-directed speech builds language processing skills. Toddlers who can interpret words in an adult’s fluent speech more quickly and accurately have more success with learning new words.

Wrapping language around everyday moments is probably the easiest way to boost your toddler's language development.  

Find Opportunities for Language Development During Everyday Routines

  • When you're helping your toddler learn new self-care skills such as toileting and getting dressed, talk through what to do or how things work.
  • When you need to set a limit on your toddler's behavior, explain why instead of just saying "no".
  • When your toddler shows you something he or she has created, describe what you see or ask simple questions about it (e.g., What is...? Where is...?).
  • When your toddler is expressing an emotion, use rich language to name the feeling instead of just saying sad, mad and happy. Do a google search for "feelings wheel" or "wheel of emotions" to get lots of ideas!
  • Chat about what’s happening during transitions in your routine. “Look at the clear, blue sky today. The sun is so bright. Let’s put on our hats and sunscreen before we go out”.
  • When your toddler is helping to prepare food, give directions ("Please pass the carrot to me.") and use sequencing words (e.g., first, then, next, finally), name the ingredients and cooking utensils you're using and describe them using your senses, and use cooking verbs.
  • Describe what you're eating during a meal. Comment on the shape, color, texture, size, smell and taste. 
  • At the grocery store, name the items as you put them into your cart and describe them or talk about how you're going to use the ingredient. “This avocado is still green and firm. We will need to let it ripen on the kitchen counter before we can use to to make guacamole.”
  • When your toddler says a one or two word phrase, expand upon the thought aloud to offer a longer sentence or create a back and forth conversation, even if you have to fill in most of the blanks. 

Words to Boost Toddler Language during Cooking Activities or at Mealtime

Tip | Drop the Baby Talk

Remember using “mother-ese”? That’s when you mimic the babbling of a very young infant and use an exaggerated singsong voice to encourage language development in very young babies. 

Once you start hearing your toddler use real words, drop the baby babble and focus on building vocabulary. It’s not helpful if you call a cow a “moo” or say “doggie” or repeat your toddler’s use of “da” instead of “the”.

It’s important for your toddler to hear ALL of the speech sounds in spoken words. This includes those speech sounds that are harder to articulate or develop later such as /r/, /l/ and /th/.

Toddlers learn to talk by repeating what they hear. So make sure you’re saying “little” not “widdle” like your toddler!

When your toddler mispronounces a word, just repeat what your toddler said correctly in a way that casually works it into your response. You don’t need to point out that your toddler said it wrong. 

Tip | Require Your Toddler to Speak to Get Help

It’s so easy to anticipate what your toddler needs and provide it before your toddler has even asked for help. This can be a hard habit to break!

We get so used to anticipating a baby’s every need that it’s hard to step back and let your toddler verbally communicate needs.

Even as early as 6-9 months, a baby will use pointing and pulling your hand to communicate needs. A younger toddler might pat his or her chest to show you he or she wants a turn. Notice these gestures.

Let's say your toddler can put on his or her coat independently by flipping it up and over, but still needs help with the zipper.

Instead of automatically doing up the zipper, you could say, "It looks like you need something." Then count in your head for 3-5 seconds to see if your toddler will ask for help. You might even try acting confused as long as your toddler isn’t getting too frustrated.

If your toddler points to the zipper, you could say "Oh I see. You want help with your zipper." Then suggest a simple phrase that your toddler is capable of saying to ask for help.

Of course, you probably won’t want to insist on verbal communication when you’re in a rush to get out the door! But it’s a great way to encourage talking when you’ve got the time to wait.

If this is something that you want to work on, all it takes is factoring in an extra 10 minutes before you need to leave so that you don't feel rushed and lose your patience.

You can use this same tip to help your toddler learn that you expect him or her to ask for more snacks, the bath toys or help with putting on socks or shoes etc.

To find opportunities, all it takes is noticing what you already do on autopilot. Then decide that from now on you'll insist on verbal communication and change what you normally do to help your toddler learn the new expectation.

Tip | Use Proper Pronouns

Have you noticed that your toddler refers to himself or herself by name? You might hear: “Emma wants milk!” instead of “I want milk!”

You might have gotten into the habit of referring to yourself as “Mommy”. It might feel very natural to say “Mommy is going to wash her hands now.”

Talking like this can really mess with your toddler’s understanding of pronouns! Instead say, “I am ...” When you’re describing what your toddler is doing, say “You are …” It’s that simple!

You can also reinforce correct use of pronouns by describing what you see other people doing. “He is…" This is fun to do when you’re at the park or grocery store together.  

Make a Mystery Bag or Discovery Basket for Your Toddler to Explore

It's easy to gather a bunch of objects from around your home to put together a mystery bag or discovery basket for your toddler to explore using the senses.

These sets are often themed such as things that are the same color, things that have an interesting texture or smell, or types of a category such as seashells, kitchen utensils or replica animals.

Of course you’ll want to supervise your toddler while he or she is exploring the objects. One reason is because small items are a choking hazard. But you’ll also want to name the objects and describe them after your toddler has had the opportunity to explore them using the senses.

You could even be strategic with the objects that you include in the bag and then use them as props for an easy storytelling activity. After your toddler has explored the objects and you've named them, you can pick one of objects and begin to tell a story. Then bring the other objects into the story it as you make it up.

Tip | Wait for Eye Contact Before You Start Naming Objects and Describing Them to Build Your Toddler's Vocabulary 

Imagine being completely engrossed in something and then someone else comes along and starts describing what you're doing in great detail. Wouldn't that be super annoying?! If you do that with your toddler, you're going to interrupt his or her concentration!

Toddlers can only pay attention to what they are looking at because they haven't yet integrated their visual and auditory systems.

The next time you notice that your toddler is engrossed in an activity that he or she has chosen, come closer and wait until your toddler looks at you before speaking so that you don't interrupt his or her concentration.

Here are some ideas to describe what your toddler is exploring once you've got your toddler's attention:

  • Describe the qualities of the object by commenting on what you see, hear, smell, touch and taste e.g., rough, miniature, plain, bright, attractive, hollow, curved, salty, sour, dazzling, blaring, silent.
  • Use comparative language e.g., small, smaller, smallest.
  • Use prepositions e.g., under, over, on top, behind, towards, through, between
  • Use adverbs e.g., slowly, easily, frequently, peacefully, loudly.

Include Informational Books During Read Aloud Time With Your Toddler

You’ve probably heard that you should read to your toddler every day. That's because books expose your toddler to richer vocabulary than we generally use in everyday conversations. 

Story books are great but they simply don't offer language that's as complex as what you'll find in informational books. A good example is how books that tell a story generally will just use the past tense.

Reading non-fiction books will also help your toddler build general knowledge about the world. This will help with your child's reading comprehension in the future.

Tip | Let Your Toddler Lead When You’re Looking at a Book Together

You don’t have to read the book from cover to cover! And you don’t even have to read all of the words on a page.

You can even just look at and talk about the pictures. You'll be teaching new vocabulary by simply labelling and describing what you see in the book.

When your child points to something in the book or labels it, you can expand on it. This is a good to extend the usefulness of “First Words” board books for babies that feature a few common items within a category on each page.

When asking your toddler questions about what you see in the book, only ask questions that are at your toddler’s level of development. Usually that's going to be easy naming questions: "What is...?" and "Where is...?"

Let your toddler be the one to turn the page when he or she is ready. Toddlers may want to linger on a page for a long time!

Say OK when your toddler wants you to read that same book for what feels like the hundredth time. This phase won’t last forever!  Reading the same book many times gives your toddler more opportunities to learn new words. 

Or, you may find that your toddler no longer wants to sit still and look at a book. 

I often see moms asking this question in Facebook groups: “How do I get my toddler to sit still while I try to read?”

Don't worry. It’s just because toddlers need to move at lot to develop gross motor skills.

Is it a struggle to get your toddler to sit still during read aloud time? Try this mindset shift: “My toddler doesn’t need to be sitting still to benefit from read aloud time.”

Your toddler might listen better if he or she has something to manipulate with the hands while you read. Offer your toddler a piece of modelling beeswax to soften it while you read. Modelling clay or therapy putty should work too. Try it and see!

Also look for brief moments during the day when you can entice your active toddler to look at a book with you. Your toddler might be more open to read aloud time while snuggling after waking up from a nap, during bath time or while you're waiting for an appointment. 

Play Listening Games and Name Sounds

Listening games will develop your toddler's perception of sound to get the ears ready for hearing individual speech sounds (phonemes) in spoken words when your child is around 3 years old. Developing phonemic awareness will make it easier for your child to learn letter sounds during the preschool years.

You can play "What sounds do you hear?" anytime and anywhere. Just pause, close your eyes and say the sounds you hear around you such as a siren, a dog barking, the dryer running, a door being closed, someone talking, etc.

Even if your toddler is too young to participate fully, you can model the act of closing your eyes, being silent and listening. If your toddler is capable, you could invite him or her to name the sound that you make such as the sound of clapping or whistling.  

Do Finger Plays with Rhyming Words

Finger plays combine movement and a kind of spoken poem with rhyming words. It's another fun way to draw attention to the sounds in words and get the ears ready for phonemic awareness activities during the preschool years.

If you've ever sung Itsy Bitsy Spider with actions, then you already know how to do finger plays! So easy, right?

5 Easy Finger Plays for Toddlers to Boost Language Development

HUNGRY LITTLE BUNNY
Once there was a little bunny
(use middle and index fingers to make ears)
And a green, green cabbage head.
(make fist of other hand)
“I think I’ll have some cabbage,”
The little bunny said.
(fingers nibble at fist)
So he nibbled and he nibbled,
And he pricked his ears to say,
(wiggle two fingers)
“I think I’ve had enough now.
I’ll go hopping on my way.
(make fingers hop)

SNOWFLAKES
Snowflakes, snowflakes, soft and white
Falling, falling, through the night
While the children sleep for hours
They will cover fields and flowers
Snowflakes, snowflakes soft and white
Falling falling through the night.
(wiggle your fingertips move them up and down slowly in order to imitate snow falling)

GRANDMA
Here are Grandma's glasses
(make circles with thumbs and index fingers and put over eyes)
And here is Grandma's hat.
(join fingertips and place on head)
Here's the way she folds her hands
(fold hands)
And puts them in her lap.
(place hands in lap)

TWO LITTLE EYES
Two little eyes to look around
(point to eyes)
Two little ears to hear each sound
(point to ears)
One little nose to smell what's sweet
(point to nose)
One little mouth that likes to eat!
(point to mouth)

FIVE LITTLE PEAS
Five little peas in a pea-pod pressed
(make a fist with one hand)
One grew, two grew and so did all the rest
(raise fingers slowly)
They grew and they grew and they did not stop
(stretch fingers wide)
Until finally, one day, the pods went pop!
(clap loudly on pop) 

Tip | Use the Expectant Pause

You can create opportunities to get your toddler talking by pausing during a finger play, song or book that your toddler is very familiar with. Simply omit one word and see if your toddler will fill in the blank with a word that he or she knows.

For example, you can pause before “down” when you’re singing Ring Around the Rosie” to see if your toddler will say the word. When you're reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See, you could say, "I see a tiger looking at ___." or "I see a ____ looking at me."

Toddler Language Activities Ideas

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