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Get Your Toddler Talking

The Gift of Gab
toddler holding green telephone

Up until now, having a conversation with your child has been a pretty one-sided affair. But look out! Here comes a speech tsunami. Between the ages of 2 and 3, kids start picking up words faster than you can say "chatterbox." Just check out the stats: at age 2, most children know 20 to 200 words; by age 3, that number soars to about 1,000.

Toddlers don't hit those high numbers on their own, however. "Parents have a huge impact on their kids' language and speech skills," says Janet Felice, speech-language pathologist and coordinator of clinical services at the Atlanta Speech School. And the more you encourage your child to chat, the better he'll do in preschool and beyond. "When kids start school, teachers expect them to have a pretty strong vocabulary," says Felice. "If your child doesn't develop a solid foundation as a toddler, he may struggle to keep up with the class."

Reading to your child is one of the best ways to help him start talking up a storm, but there are tons of other creative methods to encourage him. Our all-fun, no-frustration lesson plan will give your toddler plenty of practice using the four key components of speech.

A Is for Articulation

Even though your toddler's vocabulary is expanding overnight, she'll need lots of practice in order to build the mouth muscles that will help her say new words clearly. That sounds like a chore -- but it won't be if you use a few simple props.

A Mirror: "Your child learns to pronounce words by watching you speak, but she may become better at forming them by seeing her own mouth move as she talks," says Megan Campbell, a speech-language pathologist in Corvallis, Oregon. Sing or recite nursery rhymes together in front of a mirror.

Tissues: They can help your toddler ace her consonants, says Felice. "Hold a tissue in front of her mouth and have her practice making the P sound," she says. She'll think it's funny to watch the tissue move when she does it correctly.

Peanut Butter: Yes, really! Place a dab of it behind your child's two front teeth (if she's not allergic) and ask her to touch it with the tip of her tongue. "Tell her that's the spot her tongue should be when she says words that begin with letters such as D and T," says Campbell.

B Is for Building Vocabulary

Simply giving a running narration of the day's activities ("now you're putting slippers on your feet") exposes your kid to many new terms. Make the most of your play-by-plays with these pointers.

Repeat yourself. Use a new word in more than one instance to help it stick in your child's memory. ("Wow, this ball we're playing with is big!" "See that car across the street? Look how big it is.") But if your child doesn't pick up and use the word right away, don't panic. Some toddlers need to hear certain words or phrases more often than others before the language becomes a permanent part of their vocabulary.

Be descriptive. Don't just label objects, describe them. Talking about how something looks, feels, or tastes is an easy way to introduce new terms and spark your child's creativity. If you're at the supermarket with your kid, you might pick up an apple and say, "This apple is round and red. Let's feel it; wow, the skin is so smooth." Then ask your tot to describe another item.

Add on. Keep conversations rolling by expanding on your toddler's words and short sentences. "If he says, 'cat,' say, 'Yes, that is a cat! It's a black cat,'" says Kathleen Considine, manager of the speech-pathology department at Akron Children's Hospital, in Ohio. You can also encourage him to build on the sentence himself by asking, "What is the cat doing?"

C Is for Comprehension

Before kids can talk, they need to make sense of how words are used; namely, that they're symbols for objects and actions. These games and activities help improve your toddler's grasp of language as well as her ability to listen and follow directions -- crucial skills she'll need later in the classroom.

Simon Says: Give simple instructions such as, "Pick up the ball and throw it to me" and "Bend down and touch your toes." At this age, kids should be able to follow two-step directions, says Mellisa Essenburg, a speech-language pathologist in San Diego.

Scavenger hunts: Hide a toy and give her easy instructions to help her find it, like, "Look behind the red chair" or "It's sitting on one of the kitchen counters." If you have an older toddler, turn the tables and ask her to hide an object and give you a set of clues.

Storytime: After you read to your child, flip through the book again and ask her to tell you what happened. Give prompts if she's stumped ("Do you remember why the little boy is looking in that box?").

D Is for Demonstration

The more words your child hears, the more he'll learn and use -- but don't monopolize every conversation. Make sure he gets plenty of talk time with these tips.

Replay that tune. After you sing a song with your toddler, repeat the lyrics slowly so he can hear each word clearly. Once he's got it down, encourage your little "American Idol" to belt out the tune solo.

Phone it in play with a toy telephone (or use a block as a stand-in for one) to get him gabbing. You might pretend to talk to Grandpa, then pass the phone to your child and encourage him to chat too. For an added challenge, have him pretend he's talking to other familiar figures, like his babysitter or a neighbor.

Plan more playdates. When your toddler hears other kids his age talking, he'll be inspired to join in. Plus, your little chatterbox needs time to practice his conversation skills with his peers. That way, he won't just succeed in school -- he'll also make friends more easily when he gets there. Now that's something worth talking about!

Tongue Trippers

Kids learn to pronounce sounds in a predictable progression. Two-year-olds, for example, can usually make some consonant sounds like P, B, and M; most kids can handle K, J, and T by age 3. But other sounds are bound to trip up your child for another couple of years, and that's completely normal. Consonants such as L and combos like ch, sh, and th can be tough for even the savviest little speakers. The trickiest sounds? R and S. According to experts, it takes some kids well into elementary-school years to perfect their pronunciation. So what constitutes a speech problem, anyway? Look for these red flags.

  • You can't understand most of what she's saying by the time she's 3.
  • He doesn't make requests like, "Give me that cookie!" or he's unable to string two words together by age 2.
  • Your child communicates by grunting and doesn't babble or talk.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.