Tips to Get Late Talkers Talking

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Who is a late talker?

A late talker is a toddler who is 18 months old and is using very limited or no expressive language. Late talkers understand language and have met all of their other developmental milestones, but just “doesn’t talk,” as most parents would describe them. By 18 months old a toddler should be using at least 20 words, including nouns (e.g. mama, dada, cookie), verbs (e.g. eat, up), adjectives (e.g. hot), and greetings/salutations (e.g. hi, bye). By 2 years old, toddlers should have 100 words in their expressive vocabulary and they should be combining two-word phrases (e.g. mama up, all done, eat cookie). There are some things parents, preschool teachers, and daycare providers can do to help elicit expressive language from their little ones. Keep reading for tips on how to get late talkers talking.

This is an image of a mom grocery shopping with her baby in a baby carrier.

Tip #1: Talk, Talk, Talk

Use narration throughout the day to describe actions, feelings, and objects for the late talker’s benefit. “I’m hungry. I want to eat. What should we have? I want a sandwich. Yummy. This sandwich is good!” It may seem weird to narrate your every move, but it helps toddlers learn how to express language. Here is another example of this type of narration, at the grocery store: “I have my shopping list. What’s on it? What do I need? I need bananas. Oh look, there are the bananas. I need 5 bananas. One, two, three, four, five. This bunch has 5. I’ll get this bunch of bananas. Let’s put it in the cart.”

Tip #2: Model Language

Modeling language is somewhat similar to narrating language, but instead use “baby talk.” Speak the way a baby would. As much as possible, model language as if you were the child speaking it. For example, if baby is reaching up to be held, instead of saying “Do you want up?”, model the language a baby would use by saying, “mama up.” This way it is modeled so baby can copy you at some point. When baby is hungry, say “mama eat” or “eat please”. When baby is tired say “let’s go night night.” When baby is getting dressed, say ” shirt on”, “pants on”, “shoes on.” Refrain from telling late talkers, “say ___”. Just model what you want them to say but don’t try to force them to repeat it. Give praise and repeat the phrase if they do repeat it, or part of it, on their own (e.g. Mom says “mama up,” baby repeats “up”, parent praises and repeats, “Yes! Good job! Mama up” and immediately picks baby up so the request is reinforced).

This is an image of a boy using baby sign language for eat, drink, and more

Tip #3: Teach Baby Sign Language

Late talkers often throw tantrums because they are unable to communicate their wants and needs effectively and this is very frustrating for them and for their caregivers. Teaching late talkers baby sign language gives them a way to communicate some basic things and can greatly help in reducing tantrums. Simple signs, such as, “more”, “eat”, “help”, “milk”, “all done”, gives baby a way to communicate simple needs and have them met quickly by the caregivers. Don’t worry if you don’t know sign language, there are plenty of books that teach simple baby signs and there are YouTube videos as well. Click the links for a recommended baby sign language book and YouTube video.

Tip #4: Use Rote Language During Play and Daily Routines

Rote language is the process of learning something by repeating it many times without thinking about it or fully understanding it. An example of how to use this with late talkers, would be to play catch by tossing a balloon or ball back and forth, but when it is the adult’s turn they would count “1, 2, 3!” before they toss it. Another example of this would be to say “ready, set, go!” when pushing toy cars around. After modeling rote language a few times, start to leave a pause between words or at the end of the phrase to give the late talker a chance to chime in with the word. For example: “ready (pause), set (longer pause)… GO!!!” The idea is that eventually the toddler will shout “GO!” Making these activities a daily routine gives the toddler an opportunity to learn the rote phrase, expect the rote phrase, and eventually use the rote phrase. If the rote phrase is used only occasionally the toddler will not learn it as quickly, so try to use rote phrases daily and with multiple activities.

This is an image of a mother and toddler daughter playing catch with balloons.

Tip #5: Read to Your Late Talker Daily

Reading is a great way to encourage expressive language and build language skills in general. Take time to look at the illustrations and label the pictures. If the toddler points to a picture, label the picture and expand on it if possible. For example, if the child points to a cow, the caregiver says “Cow. A cow says moo.” Click here to purchase adapted books and read this blog to learn how to use them. Reading daily to toddlers and reading the same book over and over again is recommended. According to Today’s Parent, research shows that the repetition of reading the same book over and over helps children learn more vocabulary than reading a different book everyday.

This is an image of a toddler reading a book.

Still Concerned About Your Late Talker?

At any time if a parent is concerned about their child’s development talk to their pediatrician. A referral to a speech-language pathologist might be made in the case of a late talker. A speech-language pathologist, also known as a SLP or speech therapist, is an expert in communication and they assess, diagnose, and treat speech and language disorders in people of all ages.

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