Overview: I get asked all the time, “How do I teach my toddler who has a speech delay?” Today I’m answering this questions, and I bet the answer to the toddler speech delay isn’t what you think.
A few weeks ago, I went to pick Sicily up at her dad’s house. As soon as I walked in, his exact words were
“Don’t be surprised if you hear her say Bull Sh*t. I promise that’s not what she’s saying. I was trying to teach her to say ‘Rebel sit’ to the dog.”
To me this is hysterical. I love when toddlers get their words completely wrong or totally messed up. It’s just the cutest thing to me. Every toddler develops at their own pace, and some are a bit slower than others in their speech. But that doesn’t mean we need to teach them in a totally different way.
Several times I’ve had mamas in our Facebook group ask how they can teach their toddler if they can’t communicate back what is being taught. And every time, I give them the same answer…Keep teaching using a child-led approach. Trust me your toddler is learning even if they can’t communicate it back to you.
Speech Milestones for Toddlers
First, it’s important to understand that every toddler develops differently and at their own pace. It’s normal for toddlers to be ahead or behind 1-2 months from expected milestones. Language development is something that starts in the womb. Unborn babies can start to recognize their mother’s voice and certain sounds from their native language. Communication starts within a few minutes after birth when they release that first cry.
During their first year of life, they are basically absorbing all the language, sounds, and experiences around them. Their little brains are trying to figure out how language fits into their world and how to use it appropriately. Then around their first birthday, you might hear the first intentional “mama” or “dada.”
Related: Language Development: Milestones for Ages 1-4
From that point on, their is no stopping them. By 18 months, most toddlers use 15 words, but can understand many more. Most two year olds use between 50-100 words and add new words to their inner dictionary every day. Two year olds are also working on combining words to ask simple questions and develop sentences.
How Do I Teach My Toddler with a Speech Delay?
Teaching a toddler with a speech delay may seem like a daunting task. You may think you need to do things differently, or that they have difficultly learning because they cannot express themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth! The most important thing to remember when teaching your toddler who has a speech delay is to keep teaching normally. You don’t need to do anything different. Just because they have a delay in speech, doesn’t mean they can’t or are not learning. Here are few things to help make teaching your speech delayed toddler a bit easier.
1. Use Visuals
Print off pictures to represent the things you do on a daily basis. Think about the things you will need your toddler to do or that your toddler might ask for such as snack, drink, paint, outside, etc. Keep the cards in a handy spot, so it’s easy for you and your toddler to use them. Keeping them in a binder or a container are simple ideas for storage.
Throughout the day you can use the cards to show your toddler what you want them to do or what time it is. For example, at clean up time you can pull out the clean up card. It’s important to still use language when using the cards. Kids learn best through visuals, but they still need to hear the language being used.
So when you pull out the clean up card, get down at your toddler’s level so they can see your mouth, show them the card, and say “It’s time to clean up. Let’s pick up our toys.”
Encourage your toddler to use the cards as well to show you the things they want. Printing off small versions of the cards and placing them on the refrigerator at their level makes it easy for them to use the cards. So when they want a drink, they can get the drink card to show you.
Again, it’s important to use the language when your toddler uses the cards too. So when they show you the drink card say “I see that you want a drink. You must be thirsty.”
2. Teach Sign Language
I taught Sicily sign language starting at 3 months old. She didn’t start to use it until she was a year old, but it made communication so much easier. As you teach the signs, use the language to go with them. As your toddler uses the signs to communicate, you should respond with oral language.
3. Use Normal Vocabulary
Just because your toddler has a speech delay, doesn’t mean you should use simpler vocabulary with them. You want to expose them to as much language as you can. To help them better understand, use normal vocabulary, but within shorter sentences.
Songs, rhymes, and fingerplays should be a part of your every day experiences, especially with speech delayed toddlers. Songs and rhymes help children understand the rhythm of language. They help toddlers hear individual sounds and how to pronounce different words.
5. Expose Them to a Variety of Experiences
Get your toddler involved in a variety of different experiences, even if it’s just through play. Take a nature walk during the different seasons or in different environments like the woods or the city. Introduce a new sensory bin every week with different textured fillers. Go on field trips to the park, zoo, or aquarium.
Here’s the catch though, don’t just experience these things, get involved. Spend the majority of the time talking about the experience. Use the five senses to help you have a conversation about your experiences. Add new vocabulary into your conversations to encourage language development and expose them to new words.
6. Repeat the Child
When the child does talk, repeat them. But don’t repeat them word for word. Add in other words to help expand on their ideas and teach them how to use complete sentences. For example, if your toddler points to a butterfly and says “pretty”, you could add “The butterfly is very pretty. It has blue and white wings. Look how it flaps it’s wings to fly.”
7. Strengthen Mouth Muscles
Some times children don’t talk because their oral muscles are not strong enough. Build oral muscles by introducing activities that involve blowing like bubbles. Another fun activity is blowing a cotton ball across the table. Give your toddler cups with straws. The sucking motion of drinking from a straw helps builds oral muscles as well.
Read, read, and read some more. The more language your toddler hears, the more opportunity they have to use it. As you’re reading, leave out predictable words and give your toddler a chance to fill in the blank. Talk about the pictures and introduce new vocabulary. When introducing new vocab, use this 3 step process.
- Point and say “This is a _____.”
- “Show me the ______.”
- Tell your toddler “Say__________.”
9. Give Them a Chance to Speak
Your toddler won’t speak if you don’t give them the opportunity. Even if you know you won’t get an answer, still provide the opportunity. Ask questions and give at least a 10 second pause to wait for an answer. So if your toddler shows you the drink card mentioned earlier, you could say “I see you want a drink. Do you want milk or juice?” Try to ask questions that don’t require a yes or no answer.
There is no better way for a child to learn than play. Get down on the floor and play with them. Talk about their play and add new vocabulary. It’s as simple as being the sports caster to their play. As they are building a tower you could say “I like the tower you are building. You used one, two, three blocks. The red blocks are my favorite ones.”
Even though speech delays in toddlers can bring their own challenges, teaching them at home should be no different than teaching a child with a speech delay.
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Enjoy the quality time with your kids while learning and having fun!