Top tips to encourage toddlers to learn to talk

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As practitioners, it’s easy to focus mainly on how children say words, particularly when they mispronounce certain sounds. But, if we think of communication as making a cake – clear speech is the icing on the cake and the main ingredients are:

  • Interaction – wanting to communicate, both verbally (words) and non-verbally (gesture, tone of voice, facial expression)
  • Listening – recognising that someone is communicating with us, physically hearing what is being said and being able to pay attention long enough to focus
  • Understanding – making sense of the vocabulary being used by the other person, processing any comments, instructions or questions
  • Responding – thinking carefully about how we react to what has been said, choosing the correct vocabulary and sentence structure, finding the correct sounds and physically producing them clearly and fluently
  • Monitoring – evaluating the other person’s response, do we need to adjust our communication to help them understand?

With young children, self-chosen play is the key way for them to interact while we play alongside them.  It’s important we don’t try to take over the play and reduce the number of questions we ask, as this puts unnecessary pressure on them to talk. Ideally, there should be a ratio of 4:1 comments to questions.  The listening stage is key to developing successful communication. Try some of the activities from Phase 1 of the Letters and Sounds document.

Don’t assume that children have a good vocabulary, many may have gaps in their knowledge and will be unable to identify household items, animals, items of clothing, vehicles and toys.  Children need to understand what an object is before they can name it, so the following activities and strategies can help:

  • Sharing simple books with you naming the pictures as the child points to them
  • Laminated photos of basic objects (make sure the photo background is plain so the object is clear to the child) which you can hide around the room and find with a torch or magnifying glass, stick outside, use as stepping stones, play a matching game, stick on plastic bottles to use as skittles or throw beanbags onto
  • Putting small world items in a feelie bag or pillow case and taking turns to pull them out
  • Giving children choices so they can copy a word you say in a relaxed way. For example, “juice or milk? Sand or water? Teddy or doll?”
  • Opportunities to have fun with sounds and words in rhymes and songs

Further resources

The Communication Trust has a useful downloadable book called Universally Speaking which outlines the typical stages of speech and language development. It also suggests ways to support children.

They have also recently published a free e-learning module entitled An Introduction to Speech, Language and Communication which will help you understand more about communication development in children.


About the author

me2Kathryn is a specialist early years teacher and trainer who has worked with children for nearly 25 years, including 10 years as an Area SENCO. She is a licensed Tutor for ICAN Talk Boost as well as an ELKLAN Speech and Language Trainer.  She regularly writes and delivers courses for early years practitioners on all aspects of SEN.  You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynstinton2 or visit her website for more information.


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