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The Speech Teacher: 5 Tips To Get Your Toddler Talking

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By Molly Dresner – The Speech Teacher

Here you are, living with a tiny human, trying to equip him or her with all of the tools necessary to one day be a functional large human. Toddler life is tricky! When your little one is not using words yet to communicate, it makes your day-to-day even trickier. Let me tell you first and foremost—you know your child best. You are probably anticipating all of your toddler’s wants and needs already. You know what the cranky face, shrugged shoulders, and/or ants in the pants behavior means at all times.

In my experience, late talking toddlers and their parents compensate in the most incredible & creative ways. Your little one probably has at least one word or sound that they have started to use that can mean a wide variety of things. This looks like your child pointing to something and saying, “me” or “this” or “that” etc. They have learned that if they visually direct you to the wanted item and say a catch-all word, they get what they want. You as a parent have learned that if you ask 5-ish basic yes/no questions, more often than not your toddler will be able to nod their head, reach for the item, smile or otherwise indicate, ‘bingo!’ The goal is to create opportunities for your child to use words to communicate instead of relying on gestures or responding to your multitude of yes/no questions. So let’s begin…

Pretend & Play Dumb

It’s okay to pretend that you do not know what that tiny human wants sometimes! More often than not, the first time that I meet a child, he or she will say at least one word that the parents have not heard before. It’s because in your little one’s eyes, I am dumb. They have never seen me before and they know that I do not know what they want or what they know. Your little one will start to play the ‘look what I can do’ game, which is quite possibly my favorite. Good news, you can start playing dumb too! You are going to still stick to your daily routine; however, when it comes to playing games or new toys, just pretend you don’t know what your little one wants. Easy words to start with are: “open” “more” “help” “on” etc. Think about it, your little one brings you a toy and puts it in your lap or puts your hand on the toy. You are pretty sure your toddler wants help with it because it won’t open, work, or turn on. Well, here is your chance! You say, “open?” Only say one word. Your toddler will indicate yes or no. If it is yes, say, “open” slowly and make bigger than usual movements with your mouth. You can back up and have them imitate “oh” if you are having no luck with “open.” If they did not want it to be opened, you go through the questioning process by saying only one word at a time (i.e. “help?” “on?” etc.) When you are starting this new behavior, it is very important to accept ANY sound that your little one makes in an attempt to imitate you! Reward baby steps because any sound is better than just dropping a toy in your lap.

In the words of Wilson Phillips: Hold on!

Ah, gentle withholding! A classic go-to move to increase language. Gentle withholding occurs when you hold on to an item that your child wants until they do something in order to get it. The majority of parents start this game at the “please” stage. You hold the cupcake away from your child and ask, “What do you say?” They say, “please” and you give the cupcake. Good news—you already know how to play! Better news—you can start now! The main rule is: do not withhold items that are part of your child’s daily routine. That is, do not hold onto your child’s cup of milk until they say “milk” because you are not going to be able to remain consistent. What I mean is that you are not going to put the cup of milk away if your tiny friend refuses to say anything. Also, “gentle” is a key word here. I am not trying to create multiple tantrums throughout the day. I am simply asking you to raise the bar for certain items so that your little one starts to acknowledge that they have to say something to get something. It is best to start with treats or toys. A lot of late talkers have only two to three words and one of them is usually something that is hard to say but extremely motivating to them. One of my favorites is a little guy whose third word was “hallway” because he loved running down the long hallway of his building. Cookie is a big motivator as well. Gentle withholding works well during play activities and games. Maybe you don’t push the toy car until your little one completes ‘ready, set…’ with a big “GO!” Perhaps they don’t get Mr. Potato Head’s facial features until they attempt to say, “eye” “nose” “mouth” etc.

Motivate Me

Simple yet effective: the more motivating an item is, the more likely it is that your toddler will request it. The easiest way to create these moments is to use clear bags or containers. Place fun & preferred toy items in a plastic bag or to-go container that is see through. That way your little one can see it, but can’t open it without your help. You have now created an opportunity for your child to use “open” “help” or the name of the item inside (e.g. “Thomas” “car” etc.). You can create motivating moments in other ways by checking out your little one’s environment. Are most of his or her preferred foods, toys, and activities easily accessible? Maybe you move some of those edible treats to a higher shelf, etc. Start with one to two small changes so as not to overwhelm your tiny friend.

Stay Consistent

It is incredibly important to set new standards in which you will be able to stay consistent! Little ones are designed to manipulate the world around them and they have memories like elephants. They will always start with what is easiest, quickest, and habitual (i.e. pointing to or reaching for things they want). They will always remember what worked best last time. Your tiny friend may continue to try only using gestures to request, because it is easier and if you give in, they will remember. However, if you continue to hold out until they attempt to use their words before giving in, they will realize that the gestures no longer work and shift gears. I always suggest starting with only one to two baby steps that you feel comfortable with so you can adjust together.

Allow for a learning curve

After you read this, I hope that you will want to change the rules and up the ante for your little one. In doing so, you are creating a different dynamic than the one that your tiny friend is used to, so please allow for a little pushback. We all need a little transition time. I promise that if you start slow and stay consistent, you will see big results! Once your little one realizes that there are new rules, they will follow suit, they just need time.



My name is Molly Dresner and I am a New York City based Speech Language Pathologist and Feeding Therapist. I am ASHA (American Speech and Hearing Association) Certified and trained in the SOS (Sequential Oral Sensory) Approach to Feeding. I received my Masters in Speech Language Pathology from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and my Bachelors in Speech and Hearing Science from George Washington University. I currently work with the birth-5 population conducting evaluations & providing speech and feeding therapy in NYC.

As The Speech Teacher, I post daily ‘Pops of Knowledge’ on Facebook and Instagram that consist of facts, tricks of the trade, at home activities, and product recommendations. I believe that the more you know – as a parent or caregiver – the stronger you will be in supporting your little one’s speech, language, and feeding development! To help you achieve this, my focus is on providing you with FUN & FUNCTIONAL suggestions.

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Instagram: thespeechteacher

Email: [email protected]

Featured Image by Christian Gertenbach via under CC License.

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