First Sentences

After accumulating a store of individual words, the next developmental step is to combine them into sentences. At first toddlers use two words to create short sentences, such as “Want juice!” for “I want some juice” and “What dat?” for “What is that?”

What does telegraphic speech mean?

Using two words to create short sentences, such as “What dat?”for “What is that?” is called “telegraphic speech.” It dates back to when people used the telegraph for long-distance communication. They had to pay by the word, so they were very creative about using just a few words to convey an entire message.

Expanding Language Skills

When your toddler is able to signal her desire for a drink by saying “water,” you can encourage her to take the next step to more elaborate sentences by saying, “Can you say ‘Water, please’?” Or you can respond with a full sentence (“You want some water.”) or with a grammatically correct question (“Do you want some water?”) to help move her toward the toddler version of a complete sentence, “Want water.” Again, you should hand over the cup even if the only reply is a nod, which means, after all, that she has heard and understood the question.

Similarly, if a toddler sees a cat and starts a conversation by pointing to it and saying, “Cat,” a caregiver can engage in conversation by expanding on the subject he brought up. To do this, the adult might say, “Yes. It's a cat,” or “Yes, it's a big, white cat. And look at its long tail!” By giving a verbal response as opposed to simply nodding when toddlers speak, adults encourage them to say more.

After all, if toddlers don't receive a response when they initiate a conversation, there is no reason for them to talk! By responding with longer, more complex, sentences, adults help build toddlers' vocabularies.

Pronunciation Errors

New speakers make many “errors of articulation”; that is, they mispronounce words in predictable ways. Although articulation problems may stem from hearing problems, cerebral palsy, cleft palate, or dental problems, all toddlers make many errors. The vast majority improves with a little time and a lot of practice.

By age three, strangers ought to be able to understand your child's speech. If they cannot, it's time to talk to your pediatrician about a referral for a speech and language assessment. By age eight, children should correctly produce all the sounds of the English language.

Common errors include (1) omitting sounds, saying “at” for “hat” or “muhk” for “milk”; and (2) substituting easier sounds for more difficult ones, saying “danks” for “thanks,” “medsur” for “measure,” “wabbit” for “rabbit.” The letters s, r, and l are especially difficult for toddlers to pronounce, and many children take several years to get them right. It is not unusual to hear students say “wunning” for “running” in the early grades of school. The same goes for lisping — substituting the th sound for the s so that “sand” becomes “thand.”

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Since children must be able to hear accurately to learn to speak correctly, even mild hearing losses can take a toll on speech. If people's words sound muffled to the toddler, his speech will take on a similarly muffled or slurred quality. You should regularly screen your toddler's hearing at home. To do this, be sure that:

She turns her head toward sounds. Youngsters should signal an awareness of sounds by turning toward the front door when someone knocks or the doorbell rings, toward the sky when a helicopter or airplane flies overhead, toward the phone when it rings, toward the dog when it suddenly begins to bark.

He hears sounds coming from behind or the side. Even little ones can learn to do some lip-reading, so it can be easy to miss the fact that a youngster has a hearing problem if he converses comfortably with people standing in front of him. A telltale complaint from parents of children who are hard of hearing is, “She ignores me unless I'm in her face. Otherwise, I have to yell at her to get her to mind.”

She hears correctly. Strange responses to questions may indicate hearing loss. An example would be if you ask a simple question like, “Do you want strawberry or vanilla ice cream?” and you receive a bizarre answer, such as, “Yes, play outside.”

Chronic ear infections, allergies, and upper respiratory infections interfere with hearing. They are the most common culprits behind delayed speech and poor pronunciation.

Correcting Errors

Children's mispronunciations are often so cute that it can be tempting to adopt their errors as part of the regular household vocabulary. Soon you are routinely saying things like, “Carolina want wa-wa with din-din?”This is not the way to teach toddlers to speak so that others will be able to understand them!

You must continually demonstrate the proper way to speak so your child has a good model to copy. At the other extreme, continually correcting toddlers can produce self-consciousness and frustration that increases shyness and reticence about speaking. After all, if a child says, “Wa-wa” and points, it's probably because he still lacks the physical ability to coordinate tongue, breath, and lips to produce all the sounds in the word water. So instead of saying, “It's not ‘wa-wa’; it's ‘water,’” which can discourage a beginning speaker, emphasize correct pronunciation and grammar by responding, “Do you want some water? Here you go — one glass of water coming right up.” Producing the water lets your toddler know that he is successfully communicating, which encourages him to continue to speak to get his needs met. Repeating the correct word several times in grammatically correct sentences encourages toddlers to pay attention to correct pronunciation and usage.

Teach vocabulary by saying an object's name while moving it, and toddlers learn the words faster, experts say. Somehow it helps to roll the toy truck when you say “truck,” bounce the ball when you say its name, or make Barbie dance as you say “doll.”

Most toddlers, just like adults, are sensitive about having their speech corrected. Hearing language spoken correctly and having opportunities to practice speaking is what improves verbal skills. After all, people receive more benefit from feedback telling them they have done something right, because then they know exactly what to do. Receiving feedback that they have done something wrong doesn't clue them in as to exactly what they should do. Being told, “It's not ‘wa-wa’; it's ‘water’!” doesn't tell a toddler how to make all the complicated mouth movements needed to say the word. But when he finally says “wah-tuh,” point it out and encourage him to practice while the memory is fresh by exclaiming, “You did it! You said ‘water’! Can you say it again? Wow! My baby's growing up!”

Naming Parts of the Body

Besides talking directly to your toddler, voicing your thoughts when your toddler is within hearing range, and responding when she initiates conversations, set aside some time for helping her learn specific vocabulary. A good place to start is naming the parts of the body. This is basic vocabulary that toddlers need to know, the words are easy to teach, and the lessons provide an opportunity for fun parent/toddler interaction.

Simply say, “This is Mommy's nose” while touching your nose. Then say “This is your nose” while touching your child's nose. Then ask, “Where is Mommy's nose? Here it is!” and place your child's hand on your nose. With repetition, children learn not only the word nose but also those important phrases: this is, where is, and here it is.

Once the nose has been mastered, begin adding other parts of the body, such as ear, mouth, hair, eye, hand, and foot. Once toddlers can talk, they can take turns asking their parents to point to different parts of the body. Keep it fun by incorporating these suggestions:

  • Squeeze your nostrils when you say, “This is my nose,” to make your voice sound nasally.

  • Smack your lips when you say, “This is my mouth.”

  • Bat your eyelashes wildly when you say, “These are my eyes.”

  • After you ask, “Where is your tummy?” quickly answer your own question by saying “Here it is!” and giving your toddler a quick tummy tickle.

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