Language Development in Early Childhood

Table of Contents

It is difficult to know if your child is saying enough words for their age. There is so much information on the internet and social media, that it is hard to know what is accurate! How many words should my child say? What counts as an actual word? Does “ba ba” really mean “bottle”? Or does it mean brother, ball, or something completely different? If they aren’t saying enough words… What should I do as a parent?

Here are a few quick milestones from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, a national association for research and credentialing speech language pathologists.

1 year:

  • Babbling (long strings of consonant-vowel sounds such as buh-buh-buh or da-da-da).
  • Your child points to items of interest in their environment.
  • Your child should be close to saying their first word if they have not already.

18 months:

  • Your child should say anywhere from 20-50 words.
  • Your child should produce the following sounds: /b, p, m, h, w/
  • Your child should begin to point at pictures in books and label them

2 years:

  • Your child should say at least 50 words (and up to 200!).
  • Your child should be stringing words together to create two word phrases such as “mama eat” or “dada go”. (Note – your child will not say two word phrases until he/she has 50 words).
  • Your child should ask questions such as “what that?” or “where dog?”.

3 years: 

  • Your child should string three words together
  • Your child should have a word for almost everything
  • Your child should use “in” and “on”
  • Your child should produce most of the following sounds: /k, g, f, t, d, n/

If you are concerned about your child’s language development, or your child is not meeting the milestones listed above, it is always best practice to schedule an evaluation with a speech language pathologist.

However, there are things you can do as a parent, too! Below are 10 strategies that you can use to encourage language development at home.These strategies come from the book It Takes Two To Talk by Elaine Weitzman and Jan Pepper.

Talk to your child

It may seem simple, but it is one of the most important ways to encourage language. Talk all day every day! Describe what you’re doing, describe what your child is doing, and comment on the environment. Remember to use short two to three word phrases depending on their age.

Example: “Time to go! We are walking. Climb up. Get in car. Go car! Car is driving.”

Follow your child’s lead

Your child may not be interested in what you are interested in. It is far easier to create an interaction with your child over something they are interested in. Children learn best when they are in charge.

Example – you’re holding your child and pointing to cars on the road, but the child is far more interested in a leaf that just fell off of the tree. Observe the child and follow their lead.

Get face to face

It is far easier to connect and share an interaction when you are at eye level with your child. Additionally, it is easier to see their expressions and hear what is being said. Make it clear to your child that you are there to listen and attend to them.

Daily routines

(i.e. meals, bathing, diaper changes etc.) are fantastic times to build language skills. Daily routines happen multiple times each day and repetition is key to growing language.

Example during mealtime – work on more, want, eat, yummy/yucky, drink, and all done!

Shared book reading (picture books)

Books are amazing. Books support vocabulary growth and picture labeling. Instead of reading the story text, point out the pictures and create a routine. They may be uninterested in the story, but very interested in the pictures. Talk about what you see and use short phrases (e.g. “yellow sun!”, “fall down, boom!”). Feel free to change the text to something simple or more complex.

Imitate your child

If your child vocalizes (e.g. “uh, uh, uh” or “mmm, buh, buh”), imitate those noises! Imitating encourages back and forth interactions and shows your child that you are paying attention to what they have to say. Even if they aren’t quite saying real words, the child will hear the auditory feedback, which is stimulating and can boost language development.

Talk as if you were your child

If your child is pointing to something or bringing you an item, say what you think they would say in that scenario. Here are a few examples:

  1. Your child brings you their empty water cup – you say…“Water all done. I want more water!”.
  2. Your child is crying – you say… “I’m feeling sad/mad/upset.”
  3. Your child is trying to open a cabinet or a drawer – you say… “I need help!” or “Open!”.

OWL (Observe, Wait, Listen)

Observe your child what are they doing, what are they interested in and how are they feeling? Wait! It may take 10 seconds for your child to make a communicative vocalization, word, or gesture. Wait it out and wait with an expectant face (eyebrows raised, mouth open, eye contact.) If they don’t communicate, move on and try again. Listen to everything. If you are unable to understand your child, listening intently to what they are saying is helpful. Repeating back what you heard is also helpful (your child can patch the miscommunication by saying it another way, or gesturing etc.).

Sabotage/communication temptations

Tempt your child’s communication skills. Put something of interest on a shelf out of their reach. Put them in the bathtub but without water. Begin a preferred activity such as bubble blowing with “ready…set…” and then wait. Extremely motivating activities or even something very out of the ordinary will tempt them to communicate. Reward any sort of vocalization, word, or attempt to communicate. Example – put your child in the bathtub with no water. WAIT. As soon as they look confused, vocalize etc. make a comment such as “Uh oh! What happened?”. Wait for more communication. Continue to make comments such as “Oh no! We need water! Go water!”

***Note – this technique is not suitable for all children. This technique may upset some children. Never withhold an object as punishment for not communicating.


Development of play is highly correlated with the development of language. The more complex their play is, the more complex their language is (taking animals in and out of a barn requires “in” and “out” vs. pretending to take the animals for a walk to the store requires animal names “walk”, “go”, “stop”, “fast”, “slow”, “store” etc.). Play is fun and meaningful to children. It can happen anywhere anytime which gives you incredible access to always be adding to your child’s language.

By: Catherine Greenhut
M.S., CF-SLP, SLP Intern
Wylie Location

Learn more about Catherine!