By Raising Children Network
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Mum talking and listening to toddler at kitchen table
Between one and three years, most children learn to talk. This is the time for listening, learning and trying out words. Although toddlers might be able to say only a few words at 18 months, they can understand many more!

Turning body language into words

Listening and talking to toddlers is as much about reading what they’re saying with their bodies as it is about hearing their words. Your toddler isn’t just listening to your words either. Your child is also reading your gestures, facial expressions and the tone of your voice.

While children are learning how to talk and coming to grips with their emotions, they will also rely on other means to tell you what they’re thinking and feeling. Stuck for words, a toddler will use actions to communicate needs and wants. For example, you child might tug on your pants to be picked up, shake or nod the head, and use distinctive gestures to tell you to ‘go away’. 

When your toddler relies on body language, you can help with talking by repeating back what you think your child wants and explaining your response as you go. For instance, ‘You want to be picked up, but mummy’s got something in her hand, so you can hold my other hand’ or ‘I can see you don’t want that. What about this?’

By explaining what you’re doing as you perform actions you can help your child to understand what words go with what actions.

Expanding vocabulary

Between the ages of one and two, a toddler begins to use action words such as ‘Dog go away’ or ‘Daddy come here’. Often these simple sentences come with gestures.

By expanding the sentence to ‘You want daddy to make the dog go away?’ you can help your child to understand how words go together and help to expand vocabulary. This also works well when your toddler uses ‘made-up’ verbs such as ‘goed’. Instead of correcting your child, simply repeat the sentence back in the right form. For example, ‘Yes, the man went out the door’.

As the main theme of toddlerhood is one of asserting the self (think: No! Me! Mine! Now!), toddlers respond best to language that is about them and the exciting new idea that they can control the world.

One tactic is to give your toddler choices. For example, ‘It’s going to be cold. Would you rather wear your red scarf or your blue scarf?’ rather than ‘Put your scarf on – it’s cold’. This approach gives toddlers a sense of being in control and the satisfaction of having their opinions valued.

Helping children understand

As grown-ups, we sometimes forget that children don’t understand everything we say. If your toddler seems puzzled when you say something:

  • Try saying it in different ways.
  • Constantly revisit the words you’ve used.
  • Look at the tone in your voice. Just like babies, toddlers will respond to the tone in your voice as much as to the content of the words.
Speak with a healthcare professional if your toddler is not using body gestures like head nods or pointing, or if your child isn’t using words to communicate.
  • Last updated or reviewed 12-05-2010