Inside: Learn the 5 easiest ways to improve your toddler’s expressive language. These expressive language activities are perfect for kids who need an extra boost developing their speech & language skills.
There I was, standing in line at the grocery store, secretly hoping no one would talk to me (leggings, mom bun, no makeup, you get it).
But when you shop with small children you apparently have a sign on your back that says “please talk to me and ask me questions about my kids.”
It’s not that I’m antisocial, it’s just that I’m, well, exhausted and just trying to make it out of the grocery store alive.
As I pulled my credit card out to pay, my daughter reached her hand out and said: “Mommy, can I put the card in this time?”
The cashier and the woman behind us in line just stared. “How old is she?” they both asked. She was just barely 23 months old. They both proceeded to compliment her on her language and how she spoke like “such a big girl” – and to be honest – I felt so awkward.
No one ever wants to feel like that mom – “oh yes, thank you, my kids are perfect and they speak like adults, and never have breakdowns in Target and everything they touch is Organic.”
I’m not one to brag about my kids or their abilities. All kids are different. Some will skip crawling and go right to walking. Some will talk sooner than others.
As parents, often times we wonder if we are just “lucky” or if it’s something specific that we did to yield certain results with our kids.
It honestly can depend on what’s important to your toddler. Some little ones will do just about anything to try and climb to the top of a play structure, while others will sit for 20 minutes trying to build a play structure out of Legos.
As adults, we are no different. We pick things that interest us and we try our best to master them.
Speech and language development feels a bit different though, doesn’t it? Our speech is literally the way we present ourselves and communicate with others.
Besides our appearance, it’s one of the first impressions we make on another person. And regardless of what’s important to your toddler (climbing, building, jumping, coloring, etc.) you can improve your toddler’s expressive language by weaving these activities into daily life.
Back to the grocery store.
Both ladies wanted to know my secret – how did I establish my toddler’s expressive language skills so early and how did I create such a little talker? While I am typically reluctant to engage in a conversation with strangers while also trying to wrangle two toddlers, I gave them the brief lowdown:
- Lots of reading, all day every day
- Limited screen-time
- Restricted use of pacifier (sleep time only)
- Lots of speech & Language extension games
- Parents narrating in full, clear sentences (more on this later)
The good news is, no matter what age your toddler (or baby!) is, you, too, can improve your toddler’s expressive language.
What is Expressive Language?
It’s more or less, exactly what it sounds like!
There are two basic types of language: Receptive and Expressive.
All babies and toddlers will have a grasp on receptive language before expressive. Receptive language, or, the ability to understand what someone else is saying to you, is how we build our expressive language, which is essentially the ability to respond (in words) to what someone else is saying to you.
For example: Your one year old can most likely understand when you tell her to take her hands out of the dog’s water bowl for the hundredth time (whether she listens is another thing entirely). However, she most likely won’t be able to respond with a verbal answer, such as “no thank you, this is my new water table” until she has developed her expressive language and communication skills.
Please note: if you’re concerned that your toddler has an expressive speech delay, please consult their pediatrician for a proper diagnosis.
This article was written in consultation with my mom (hi, mom!) who is a Certified Speech & Language Pathologist.
There’s a lot of actionable information in this post. You may want to Pin It for later so you don’t forget these simple tips!
5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Toddler’s Expressive Language
That’s right. When in doubt, sing it out. And don’t worry, it’s okay if you can’t hold a tune. Your toddler definitely does not care. They just want to hear mommy or daddy sing.
There is an abundance of research that proves singing nursery rhymes, or any sort of rhyming song, helps improve language development as well as early literacy (the building blocks of early reading).
Have you ever wondered why it’s so easy to remember the words to your favorite song from 5th grade but how hard it is to remember, well, just about anything else? #mombrain
Rhyming is a mnemonic device, which means that if a phrase or song contains any sort of rhyme scheme, a toddler will be more likely to remember the concept being taught.
So how can you integrate this concept into daily life, while also improving your toddler’s expressive language?
Easy! Here’s how I do it – in real life.
Do you know the song The Farmer in the Dell? “Hi-Ho the derry-o….” Use this song as a starting point and replace “the farmer in the dell” with any phrase you like.
For example: If I am putting laundry away and I want my 18 month old to help me, AND I also want to use this as a teachable moment, I will sing —>
“The laundry’s in the drawer, the laundry’s in the drawer, hi-ho the derry-o, the laundry’s in the drawer. Now we fold the socks, now we fold the socks, hi-ho the derry-o, now we fold the socks.”
The easy part is you can pretty much do this with any children’s nursery rhyme, this one just happens to be the easiest for me. So the next time you are trying to get the kids out of the house quickly, or teach your toddler to clean up their toys, sing it out! Soon, they will be repeating you.
Establish a Daily Routine
How can establishing a solid daily routine help build your toddler’s vocabulary and boost their expressive language? Let’s discuss.
While routines are important at any age, they are especially important for toddlers as this is how they learn the “daily programs” or “daily procedures” of life: when to walk the dogs, do the dishes, put on shoes, etc.
Whether you are a stay-at-home or working parent, it’s important that your toddler knows what to expect from their daily life.
If you’re thinking you can’t stick to a routine because life is hectic and unpredictable (which it is), think again. A routine is meant to be flexible. We’re not talking about a strict schedule, we are on toddler time here after all.
Need some help getting started with routines? I’ve got you covered.
- My 1 Year Old’s Daily Routine
- My 18 Month Old’s Daily Routine
- Daily Routine with a Baby & Toddler
- Bedtime Routine with a Baby & Toddler
- Stress-free Preschool Morning Routine
- Daily Routine with a Toddler & Preschooler
Once you start practicing your daily routine, you may notice that your toddler picks up on all of the little subtleties of daily life.
For example: My first child started to walk around 11 months old. She had basic baby vocabulary at this time (mamma, dadda, baby, etc.) but she knew what to expect from her daily routine.
One day we were getting ready to leave the house and she went over to hall closet and brought me my shoes. Then she toddled over to the pantry and started pointing up to the top shelf. It took me a second to realize what she was doing.
She was pointing to the bag of dog treats. We had always given the dogs a treat before leaving the house. All those times I held her on my hip as a baby, narrating the process of getting my shoes on, then grabbing dog treats, apparently had paid off.
The progression of this early language development should look like this:
- Stage 1: Mom or dad narrates: “Okay, now I’m getting my shoes on. Then we’ll get the dogs a treat from the pantry, and then we’re off to the playground!”
- Stage 2: Toddler physically copies or acts out mom or dad’s words.
- Stage 3: Toddler repeats steps and words on their own
A few months later, my toddler would put on her own shoes and then ask “Mommy can I do the doggy treats?” Now, 2 years later, my second child is in the “copying” stage. She physically acts out these same steps and I continue to narrate my actions as well as her own.
This is simply one example or aspect of a daily routine. You can (and should) demonstrate and narrate any part of your day.
Expand (As Much as You Can)
This next concept follows closely with daily routines. You can pretty much practice this anywhere, and every time you expand upon your toddler’s thought, whether they are verbal or not, you will be helping them build an expressive language bank.
When your child says a one or two word sentence or phrase, expand upon their thought aloud.
So if you’re playing with your toddler and they point to their doll and say “baby” then you would say:
“Oh, does the baby need to eat? Let’s put baby in her high chair and make her some food.”
Then you would continue on with the role play and gradually expand further to talk about the baby’s bottle, bib, spoon, etc. So the next time you’re playing with the baby doll, you could say:
“What do you think baby wants to do today? Go for a walk in the stroller, play with her doll, or take a nap?”
The more often you play this expansion game, the better. With lots of repetition, you’ll find that your toddler’s language begins to explode and all of a sudden it will feel as though they are speaking in full sentences!
The common mistake most parents make here is to simply repeat whatever their toddler says. So if your 1 year old is playing and points to her doll and says “baby” – and you respond by agreeing: “yes, baby” – you are reinforcing that she is correct, but this doesn’t do much in the way of expanding her expressive language and communication skills.
That being said, you don’t have to expand upon their every thought (because that would be exhausting), but as with anything, consistency and repetition will produce the best results.
Read more about how to boost speech through language games.
I Need It!
Toddlers often resemble little cavemen in that they are experts at pointing and grunting.
When your little one is thirsty they may point at their cup and say “uh” – you know what I’m talking about here. They don’t need to communicate anything to you verbally, because you already know what they’re trying to say. So you fulfill their wish and you give them their cup.
This is the perfect opportunity to create a need for communication between you and your toddler.
As moms, we always anticipate our kids’ needs. That’s pretty much a given of being a parent. We know when they’re hungry, tired, thirsty, cranky, or whathaveyou. After all, we have been caring for our kids since they were little nonverbal babies with pretty much one cue: crying.
Now, in toddlerhood, it is the perfect time to teach your toddler that in order to have their need fulfilled, they must verbally communicate with you.
Here’s how to do it:
Let’s go back to the example of the water cup. Your toddler wants a drink so they point to their cup on the counter and expect you to get it for them.
Instead, you say: “what do you need sweetie?”
So they point to the cup again, this time with a more insistent little “uhhh.”
“Oh, I see. You want your water cup. Next time, let’s say, “water” or “water, please,” or whatever simple phrase you think your toddler is capable of saying.
Each time they ask for their cup, you reinforce this concept. Frustration on their part is normal, especially if they’re used to getting what they want without having to ask for it.
The next time they want a drink, you can say: “It looks like you want something. Do you want water or milk? Water? Okay, let’s ask mommy for water.”
To help them along, you can point to your own mouth as you say “water” clearly, so they can try and emulate you.
This simple exercise is great for toddlers who can talk but are reluctant to do so. This is also a great way to literally teach your toddler how to talk.
Mom-to-Mom Tip: As a mom of two toddlers, one of my mom-life mantras is “pick your battles.” Of course some moments will be more opportune than others to try this out. When you’re trying to get out the door for preschool in the morning it’s probably not the time to painfully extrude words from your reluctant toddler. You’ll be stressed and therefore may put more pressure on them to speak. Lose=lose. There will always be times when it feels more natural to implement language development exercises.
This last expressive language exercise is probably the most important, and depends a lot on you (and your partner, grandparents, preschool teacher, etc.). But, man, I wish my acronym was better!
When your toddler does talk, here’s exactly what you need to do:
- Get down on their level
- Make eye contact
- Show you understand by engaging
- Summarize what they told you
- Offer specific praise or a compliment
Now, here’s what this may look like in real life:
Your toddler runs over to you to tell you about the dump truck they saw outside.
“Mommy, mommy!” (you get down on their level, hold their hands and make eye contact)
“I was outside…and then…there was a truck…big truck” (you engage by saying “wow, a big truck!”)
“It went vroom vroom…and I saw it…it was outside…mommy, and then there was a truck…it was green…” (you summarize by saying “You were outside, and you saw a big green truck, and it was very exciting!”
Then you compliment your toddler using specific praise, which can sound something like this: “I love how you told me all about the truck you saw! You even remembered the color, and the sound it made. You are becoming such a great storyteller.”
Your toddler needs to believe that you find what they have to say important. If you want your toddler to be an articulate speaker with solid expressive language skills, then you absolutely must pay attention to them when they talk, even if they’re only saying two words.
A quick note on improving your toddler’s expressive language:
In real life we are constantly busy and on the move. Carting our kids from preschool to activities and all of the errands in between. But sometimes we have to slow down and remind ourselves of what really matters.
This is not to say that you have to stop, drop, and listen every.single.time. your toddler says something (because once they start with the “why” questions, they never stop), but we can always find time to get down on their level and genuinely listen to what they have to say.
After implementing these 5 exercises you should begin to see (or hear!) a dramatic improvement in your toddler’s expressive language.
More on Toddler Life
- Get Your Toddler to Eat More Leafy Greens
- How to Survive a Bad Day with a Toddler
- When Your Toddler Won’t Nap: Here’s What to Do
- The Ultimate Guide to Picky Eating
- How to Potty Train a 2 Year Old
Disclaimer: I am not a pediatrician or a professional (except at doing laundry). You can read our full disclosure policy, here.