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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 6 – preschool

Toddler language milestones

All toddlers learn language and communication at their own pace. However, there are recognised milestones that toddlers reach in the same order the world over. If you're concerned about your toddler's communication skills, speak to her doctor.
In Short
Language development is incredibly complex and takes years to master. Some children will talk and understand language earlier than others.

It can be very hard to spot if your child has a problem with communication and it’s really important not to focus solely on vocabulary. If you feel there may be a problem then you need to speak to your toddler's doctor or health visitor in the first instance. They would usually arrange a hearing test. Even if your toddler does respond to noises, a condition such as glue ear may mean his hearing is sometimes impaired.

By your toddler’s second birthday he may know these words: Daddy, Mummy, more, hello, milk, juice, no, cat, dog, ball, eye, nose, car, shoe, hot, now, thank you.

Milestones of language development

Language development can be broken down into:

  • Receptive language – understanding what people say
  • Expressive language – using vocabulary, sentences and grammar to express oneself
  • Pragmatic language – connecting with other people socially through language.

Language development is incredibly complex and takes years to master. It’s amazing to see a toddler begin to undertake the milestones that lead to understanding language and using it to communicate. These milestones tend to occur in the same order, although some toddlers talk earlier and understand less, whereas others talk less to begin with but understand more.

Here are some general guidelines as to what to expect in your toddler’s language and communication development.

Between 12-18 months
Non-verbal milestones
  • Enjoys peek-a-boo (this can be enjoyed from four months)
  • Understands a few simple words, like ‘milk’, ‘hat’ and ‘dog’.
  • Understands and follows a few simple instructions like ‘kiss daddy’, ‘give me’, ‘kick ball’, ‘stop’.
  • Can point to family members and familiar objects such as ‘where’s the cup?’
Verbal milestones
  • Uses around 20 simple words, such as ‘cup’, ‘daddy’ and ‘dog’. (You will learn to recognise them but it might sound too garbled for strangers to understand their words).
  • Gesture or point, often with sounds and sometimes a word to show what they want.
  • Imitate words and gestures of familiar people.
  • Copy lots of things that adults say and gestures that they make.
  • Engage in pretend play, e.g., pretending a brick is a phone or a shoe is a car.
Between 18-24 months
Non-verbal milestones
  • Concentrate on activities for longer.
  • Enjoy pretend play with their toys, such as feeding dolly.
  • Listen and attend to what you say for several sentences.
  • Share a picture book (though some children will do this from babyhood).
  • Understand 200-500 words (no need to count!)
  • Understand more complex questions or instructions. e.g., ‘where is your bed?’ and ‘show me your toes’.
Verbal milestones
  • Copy noises and words.
  • Use 50+ words, mainly nouns.
  • Beginning to use short proto-sentences with two words, such as ‘more milk’ or ‘bye mummy’.
  • Use a limited number of consonant sounds e.g., d, b, h, m, n, p.
  • Still miss the ends off words at this stage.
  • Mispronounce words e.g., can’t say ‘th’ or ‘f’.
  • They can begin to be understood by strangers more easily.
Between 24-36 months
Non-verbal milestones
  • Listen to and remember simple stories with pictures.
  • Understand 3-word instructions, e.g., ‘where’s my bag?’
  • Understand simple ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘where’ questions.
Verbal milestones
  • Use up to 300 words.
  • Use more complex sentences with 4-5 words together, including adjectives and verbs e.g., ‘want more milk’, ‘she took my car’, ‘my red hat there’, ‘I falled down’ (not able to use past tense properly).
  • Asks the name of things.
  • Adds ‘s’ to make plurals, using a general rule rather than imitation (will say ‘trains’, which is correct and ‘mouses’, which is not).
  • Often have problems with sh, ch, th and f.
  • Play with other children and share but may also engage in parallel play (play alongside other children as opposed to with them).
  • Will stammer and stutter as they struggle to express themselves.
3 and 4 years
Non-verbal milestones
  • Can listen to longer stories and anecdotes and will ask and answer questions about what they have heard.
  • Enjoy playing imagination games.
  • Laughs at simple jokes and likes humour.
Verbal milestones
  • Answer simple questions about a picture book e.g., ‘Whose house did Goldilocks go to?’
  • Use colours (some toddlers do this from as young as two years) and by the age of four may be able to use colour, number and time-related adjectives, e.g., ‘green boat,’ ‘two apples’ and talk about ‘yesterday / tomorrow’ though still may make mistakes.
  • Able to answer questions about ‘why’ something has happened.
  • Use longer sentences and link sentences together.
  • Describe events that have already happened e.g. ‘we went park.’
  • Tries to answer ‘why’ questions as well as asking ‘what’ ‘where’ and ‘why’ questions.
  • Generalises past tense so may say ‘runned’ instead of ‘ran’.
  • Common to still mispronounce some sounds such as r, w, l, f, th, sh, ch and dz (this is normal but speech therapists have some great games to help children learn to make sounds properly with their mouth.
  • Use small numbers.
  • Use time words like ‘tomorrow’ but don’t always have an accurate understanding of the past and the future.
  • Describe activities e.g. ‘we went swimming’.
Language development problems

It can be very hard to spot if your child has a problem with communication and it’s really important not to focus solely on vocabulary. Communication is about so much more than the number of words your toddler can use. Communication starts non-verbally, with that first lovely eye contact between you and your baby. Then, even before your baby can speak, she learns about taking turns in a conversation. Vitally, she learns to listen and attend to you and make a response; even if it’s just to coo, smile or squeal. Developmental psychologists call this ‘serve and return’ and it is the first building block of communication.

If you are concerned that your toddler isn’t talking, first assess her non-verbal communication. Does she make eye contact with you? Does she smile? Does she listen? Does she respond, either non-verbally or with noises? If some or all of this communication behaviour is absent it’s really important to get your toddler assessed professionally.

Try not to worry too much about mispronunciation and unclear speech as this is almost a defining factor of toddler speech. If you are really worried about your toddler’s speech and feel it is quite different from that of her peers, speak to your health visitor or visit the ICAN website to help you compare your toddler’s speech development to a range of milestones. Sometimes you just need to be patient and encourage the amazing process of language acquisition, which takes many years.

Assessment by child development team or paediatrician

If you speak to your doctor or health visitor the first step would usually be to arrange a hearing test. Even if your toddler does respond to noises, she may have a condition like glue ear (that may mean grommets are needed) which means that her hearing can come and go.

In the UK you can also self-refer your toddler to a speech therapist or get a referral via your health visitor. A speech therapist can:

  • Refer your toddler for a hearing test
  • Arrange a short speech therapy course
  • Support you to get your toddler a speech play worker if they attend a nursery.

Things that can help with delayed speech (depending on the underlying problem) include:

  • Getting grommets or treatment for hearing problems
  • An initial speech therapy course
  • Signing up for a DVD or online course produced by a speech therapist to teach you how to help your toddler to communicate
  • Using Disability Living Allowance (if your toddler is awarded it) to pay for private speech therapy sessions.

The chances are that your toddler will start talking perfectly in time. The good news is that even children with complex speech problems get there eventually. You will be able to help your child enormously by creating opportunities for speech, and modelling language. These are things that a speech therapist will help you to learn.

Opportunities for speech

It can be easy to anticipate your toddler’s needs and requests and respond to her before she has a chance to speak. However, it will help your toddler’s language development if you create opportunities for your toddler to express herself and her needs. Creating opportunities for speech include:

  • Making sure things aren’t where your toddler expects
  • Creating a need to ask for things, such as putting toys or food in clear sealed containers so she can see them and want them but you don’t give them to her until she makes a request. To begin with this would just be pointing, which is non-verbal communication, but you would build up by modelling what she should say, e.g., ‘Cheese?’ ‘Want cheese?’

Another helpful technique with non-verbal toddlers is offering choice. Some toddlers’ brains recognise words fairly easily but producing a word out of nowhere is quite hard. So, if your toddler wants a drink, offer her a choice she can see, ‘Do you want water or a hairbrush?’ To make it even more straightforward you would also hold the actual objects as you offer them as options. Toddlers can pick this up quite quickly and it can cut down their frustration levels immensely.

The transition from non-verbal baby to fluent school child is a miraculous development that occurs through toddlerhood. In turn, your toddler’s developing language will promote and enable their cognitive development, their social development and their emotional development.

Your toddler’s vocabulary

Language communication is about so much more than vocabulary. However, it is a good idea to have an idea of the words that your toddler uses.

By your toddler’s second birthday she may know these words:

Daddy, Mummy, more, hello, milk, juice, no, cat, dog, ball, eye, nose, car, shoe, hot, now, thank you.

These words will change a bit from family to family but they are some of the most important words to help her get by, a little like when you first visit a new country and you learn words to buy food. However, you may be the only person who can understand her pronunciation. These first nouns and instruction words are the building blocks that allow your toddler to communicate with you about her needs and the world around her. Her vocabulary can then begin to build exponentially.

Ellie’s speaking seemed to be like two steps forward and one step backwards. She’d make a new sound or a new word, say it constantly for a week and then it would be gone. I was obsessed with her knowing her colours and her numbers as she was my first but I don’t know if the rote learning really helped – luckily she loved her colours and counting books! By the time Finn came along I was more relaxed and just enjoyed chatting and sharing books.
Real mum story. Penny, mum to Ellie 4 years and Finn 2 years
Try the Wug Test on your child

The Wug Test was developed by Jean Berko Gleason to assess the generalised rules of grammar that English-speaking children apply as they learn to speak a language (different results are found in Japanese-speaking children, for example, where plurals are handled differently).

To try the test on your child you need to:

  1. Draw a picture of a nonsense item or animal
  2. Show the picture and say ‘This is a Wug.’
  3. Show another identical picture and say ‘Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two________?

A child who says ‘wugs’ has never heard that word but has used a grammar rule to form a plural.

Toddlers generally produce plurals for common words e.g., ‘cats’ or ‘dogs’ at around 18 months old but they usually don’t pass the Wug Test until around their third birthday.

Top Tip: When you are showing your toddler a new thing with a new word e.g., cow, talk about the cow in three different ways so your toddler notices and attends to the word cow. You will probably do this automatically!
References and further reading

Berko, J. (1958). The Child’s Learning of English Morphology. Word, 14, 150-177.

Share the knowledge
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.