1. Toddlers
  2. Connecting & communicating
  3. Communicating

Toddlers talking and learning to communicate

1-3 years

Your toddler is listening, learning and trying out words. Toddler talking might involve only a few words, but by 18 months toddlers can understand many more. Here’s how to help your child learn more words and learn about using words to communicate better.

About toddler talking

In the toddler years, your child’s language will start to explode, as your child moves from using single words to putting together simple sentences. Your child is also starting to understand and follow simple requests, like ‘Bring me your book’ or ‘Wave bye-bye’.

But toddlers often still don’t have the words to express big emotions or talk about complex experiences. That’s where you come in. With your help and patience, plus plenty of time and practice, your child will start learning how to use words to communicate better.

Helping toddlers turn body language into words

A big part of talking and listening to your toddler is watching what she’s doing with her body. Your toddler might use body language when she doesn’t have the words to get her message across.

If you give your child your full attention, you can tune in to what he’s communicating with his body. This will help you work out what he wants to say. For example, your child might tug on your pants to be picked up, shake or nod his head, and use distinctive gestures to tell you to ‘go away’. This is a great time to encourage your child to use words and show your child how.

You can do this by repeating back what you think your child wants and explaining what you’re saying as you go. For example, ‘You want to be picked up, but I’ve got something in my hand. You can hold my other hand’, or ‘I can see you don’t want the apple. Would you like a pear instead?’

Also, your child is reading your gestures, facial expressions and the tone of your voice. If you explain what you’re feeling in words that go with your actions and facial expressions, you can help your child understand how words, feelings and body language go together. For example, when you say ‘I’m glad that you had a good day at child care’ and give your child a smile and a hug, this helps her link good feelings with the word ‘glad’.

Toddlers learning more words

At 1-2 years, toddlers start to use action words like ‘Dog go away’ or ‘Daddy come here’. Often these simple sentences come with gestures.

By repeating the words back to your child in full sentences, you can help him understand how words go together to make sentences – for example, ‘You want Daddy to make the dog go away?’

You can also help your child learn more words – for example, when your child uses ‘made-up’ verbs like ‘goed’. To help your child learn, repeat the sentence back with the correct word. For example, ‘Yes, the man went out the door’.

Toddlers learn best when they’re interested in something. Another way to help your child learn more words is by talking with your child about what she’s interested in and asking questions. For example, ‘Yes, that’s a big green frog – what noise does a frog make?’

Another way to help your toddler learn more words is by giving him choices using words and objects. For example, you could hold up two pairs of shoes and say, ‘We’re going outside. Would you rather wear your red boots or your blue shoes?’ Giving your child a choice might also help you get your toddler’s shoes on more easily!

Helping children understand words

It’s easy to forget that children don’t understand everything we say. Here are some ideas to try when your toddler seems puzzled by something you’ve said:

  • Try saying it in different ways to see if that helps your child’s understanding. For example, ‘Put the blocks in the box’, or ‘Here’s the box. Put the blocks in it’, or ‘Take the blocks to the box, and put them in’.
  • Try to use the same words to describe things – if you repeat the same words, your child will start to understand them. For example, you might always use the word ‘pyjamas’ when you talk about what your toddler wears to bed.
  • Think about the tone of your voice. The tone of voice that you use helps your child to understand the meaning of the words you say.
  • Sing songs or say rhymes with your child. This helps her to understand different word sounds – and it’s fun. If you need help remembering the words of songs and rhymes, check out our Baby Karaoke.
Speak with a child health professional if your toddler isn’t using gestures like head nods or pointing, or if your child isn’t using words to communicate.

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Last updated or reviewed
16-05-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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