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Communicating With Toddlers

Communicating with toddlers is very different than communicating with infants. After all, now they can express themselves using words. For most caregivers, this is a landmark change and a great relief. Words become very important during the toddler stage, and it is important to understand what is happening during the toddler stage so that we can respond appropriately.

By the time they are a year old, many children can say a few words and understand many more. By 16 months, most toddlers can say an average of 40 words and understand around 169 words (Golinkoff & Hirsch-Pasek, 2000). At about 18 months, language often explodes. Children often begin to add as many as three or four words a day to their speaking vocabulary.

Oral language, like reading and writing, develops in a predictable way. Children usually begin with one-word sentences, like “shoe.” These are called holophrases, and they represent all the information in a thought, even though they are usually labels for familiar people, places, or happenings. Children then go on to what is called telegraphic speech because it sounds a little like language in a telegram. Sentences consist of a noun and a verb with no connecting words or modifiers. Meaning relies on context. The meaning of “doggie gone” can mean a variety of things depending on the context, from “I want the dog back” to “Take the dog away!” Usually, though, meaning is very clear. Toddlers depend heavily on non-verbal communication methods like facial expressions, pointing, and tone to convey meaning. As toddlers move through this stage and begin to construct more elaborate sentences, their speech becomes more adult-like, although construction may be creative. Children often overgeneralize the rules of grammar as oral language develops, resulting in sentences like “She eated all the ice cream.” As children grow and gain experience using language, these constructions disappear. By the preschool years, speech is becoming very much like that of older children and adults.

It’s important to remember that oral language does not develop through formal instruction. Children learn oral language skills as they talk with more skilled language users, as they listen to conversations, and as they participate in book reading. Children initially use language to communicate with others. Oral language learning is essentially a social skill.

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