Let's Play: the speech and language way

Speech and language therapy ideas for playing at home



Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery

When little ones are learning to talk, words are rarely accurate.  This often leads to questions like: “Is that a word?”  “Did he just say…?”  “Did anyone else hear that?”  “Does that count as a word?”  “Is this normal?”

Toddlers are working hard to figure out how to make all those sounds in the right order at the right time.  It isn’t easy.  Most toddler words are generally simplified versions of true words (i.e. “wawa” for water).  Sometimes many of the toddler’s words are only understood by those who spend the most time with them.

Just take a look at this short sample of common toddler words (all of which are typical in development) and you’ll see how a toddler can be hard to understand:

  • “u”/up
  • “tah”/car
  • “bawoo”/balloon OR blue
  • “daw”/dog
  • “doh”/go
  • “mahmoh”/mower (lawn mower)
  • “dut”/duck
  • “dah”/star
  • “mitee”/Mickey
  • “pay”/plane (airplane)
  • “dop”/stop

With so many distorted, substituted, and omitted sounds, it’s no wonder some people have a hard time understanding toddlers.  So how do you know when your toddler’s speech is just typically hard to understand or when it might be time to ask a Speech-Language Pathologist?  It generally comes down to how often he is understood by familiar people (moms, dads, caregivers).  If a toddler’s mother (or most familiar caregiver) understands her 2-year-old less than 50% of the time then that could be a recipe for frustration…for all involved.

As an SLP myself, here’s what I tend to look for when deciding whether a toddler’s speech is on track (even if it’s difficult to understand at times):

1. Is there a consonant sound where a consonant sound should be?

It doesn’t necessarily need to be the right consonant sound.  For example, “top” for stop would be fine because there is a consonant sound at the beginning and at the end.  Saying “ah” for stop would mean that consonant sounds are being left out of the beginning and the end making this almost impossible to understand if the child weren’t also holding up their hand at the end of some movement.

HOW TO HELP:  If your little one leaves sounds out and says things like “u” for up, you can start emphasizing the missing sound when you repeat it back.  Use a visual cue (clap, tap, point, raise a finger, etc) when you say “p”.  Your toddler doesn’t necessarily need to try it again in that moment, they may just need to hear it again and again and again until they are ready.

2. Are there a variety of vowel sounds attempted in words?

For example, a child may say “dah” for dog, “da” for dad, and “doo” for two.  Using a few different vowels greatly improves how well a word can be understood.  If dog, dad, and two all sounded like “duh” then it would be really hard to figure out the meaning.

HOW TO HELP:  SING! Sing words slowly. Singing naturally elongates vowel sounds allowing toddlers to listen to them longer.  Call out to missing objects or people when you can’t find them or when you’re playing peek-a-boo “mooommyyyy, where are you?”

3. Are there a variety of consonant sounds?

Having at least a handful (or two) of consonant sounds when attempting words is important, just as with vowel sounds.  Typically the earliest consonant sounds toddlers will use in words are: b, d, m, n, h, y, t, p, and w.  That doesn’t mean these sounds will be accurate all the time and it doesn’t mean a toddler can’t say additional sounds.  I get really excited when a toddler can say a “k” or “g” or even a messy “s” sound in word attempts!

HOW TO HELP:  In general, make sure you always repeat words back to your little one accurately.  You can slightly emphasize the sound that he should change.  If your toddler is stuck with only 2-3 consonant sounds you might want to play with consonant sounds rather than trying them in words.

4. Do the word attempts mostly have the right number of syllables? 

I’m not expecting a toddler to use 3-4 syllables in a word but familiar two-syllable words should have two syllables (maybe not the first few times they try it but shortly afterwards).  For example, when trying to say bubble, does the toddler use two syllables “buhbuh” or just one “buh”?  “Dinosaur” is a long word.  Many toddlers will shorten it to “dino” or “disaur”.  That’s fine.

HOW TO HELP:  Clapping, tapping syllables is a fun way to emphasize two parts.  Singing can be helpful too.  Another idea would be to give an action to each part of the word.  Making words active might be more interesting to active toddlers!  Try dinosaur by putting your arms up high for “di” on your hips for “no” and on the ground for “saur”.

5. Do the words become more accurate over time?

The first time a toddler says “da” for daddy, everyone cheers!  In the next weeks or months to follow we would expect that word to change to “dada” and then eventually “daddy”.  As long as words are changing and becoming more accurate, that’s what’s most important.  They all start off a little messy!

If you’re wondering at what age all of these things happen, I’m generally referring to the 18-30 month age range in speech development.  However, the range of normal is so huge that I hesitate to attach a specific month with a specific sound (others may disagree).  The progression of sound development and the variety of sounds are the most important factors during this age range.  Again, most words are simplified at first.  A doggy is often a “doddy”, the color blue is often “boo”, and a spoon is frequently a “boon”.  These are all typical.

One of my favorite messy toddler words from my own son was “wibedy”.  It had the right number of syllables, a variety of consonant and vowel sounds, and it eventually changed over time (much to my dismay) into “library”.

As a final note, I wrote this as a guide for parents.  It is not meant to be a complete examination of speech development and is by no means a substitute for an evaluation by a Speech-Language Pathologist.

For a FREE, printable version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

Other articles I’ve written that you may be interested in:

Two little words to encourage communication

Magical Moments

Wondering isn’t the same as worrying

Looking for PLAY ideas?

Toys that do nothing

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!

After the rain…PUDDLES!

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Two little words to encourage communication

You want your toddler to say a word.  What do you do?

You get out their favorite book and open it up to the brightly colored picture of the ball.  You know he knows this word.  It won’t fail, right?

Parent:  “What’s this?”

Toddler:  blank stare

Parent:  “Say ball”

Toddler:  looks at the picture of the car

Parent (goes to get a ball then shows it to toddler):  “Do you want the ball?  Say ball”

Toddler:  leaves the room

Sound familiar?  The two most common ways we try to get children to say words may be asking “what’s this” and commanding “say…”.  However, these don’t always seem to work and they rarely work with new words.

Being asked to perform on demand often backfires, especially with little ones who are still learning new skills or those who just don’t want the spotlight.  Direct questions and commands place a lot of pressure on your toddler to talk or at least try to talk.

Taking the pressure off may be one of the most effective strategies we can use to open the doors of communication.  We can do that many ways, but one of my favorites is to start with two little words:

“I wonder”

Rather than ask your toddler “what’s this”, try wondering aloud while YOU look at the picture of the ball: “I wonder what this is.”  Sounds simple and maybe you’re thinking that won’t work.  Try it.  Take it a step further and wonder aloud if it could be “a car? no.  a bird? no.”  Keep wondering “hmmmm”.  Maybe even wonder aloud if it could be one of two things (this way you are reminding your toddler of the word without telling them) “I wonder if it’s a car or a ball…hmmm”.  You may be surprised when your toddler tries to help you by saying “ball!”

By stating “I wonder” you have opened the door to communication without demanding it.  Your toddler does not have to do anything, but if they choose to then it will have so much more of an impact and they may even remember that word more quickly the next time.  By putting the pressure on yourself to remember the word, you have taken all the pressure off of your toddler.  He will thank you… and then maybe feel sorry for you because you are so forgetful and even help you remember!

When you are hoping your toddler will say a word you think they already know, start with “I wonder.”

For a FREE, printable version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

For more play ideas for early communication you may be interested in:

Indoor play with an active toddler

Magical Moments

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!



Halloween play

“Boo!”  It’s time for Halloween which means it’s the best time to capitalize on one of the easier words for little ones to learn – BOO!  If they haven’t mastered “boo” in the classic game of Peekaboo then it’s time to revisit the word for Halloween fun!

If you’ve read many of my posts, you’ll know that arts and crafts are not my area of expertise but there are tons of crafty moms who will fill your Google search and Pinterest pages!  I tend to stick with painting pumpkins, sticker scenes, window clings and tissue ghosts.  Painting pumpkins is fun and messy and a perfect time to practice words like “up, down, water, tap, dot” and all the colors.  We add stickers on the second day (once paint dries).  Sticker scenes are great for language such as naming which person/object goes in which area of the house and what goes under, next to, beside, in front of, etc.

trick or treat

Trick or treating can be a great way to practice speech and language skills! You say a word and you get a treat… pretty big incentive!

Before you head out, have your little one practice holding a bag or bucket and say some version of “trick or treat” to mom, dad, neighbors, grandparents, puppets, dolls… and let them receive something, anything so that they get the idea. Then when the big event comes they will better prepared and able to maybe say something to all of the complete strangers they are about to meet!

“Trick or treat” is a pretty complicated phrase to say accurately – even for preschoolers. Here are some of the common versions of this Halloween phrase:

“chi uh chee”
“ti uh tee”
“twik oh tweet”
“di oh dee”

If this is just too much for your little one, try just practicing “please” and “thank you”. If they aren’t yet talking or are hesitant to talk to strangers give them a card to show or to point to that says “trick or treat”.  I know I didn’t talk to anyone I didn’t know until I was at least 10 years old…or something like that.  Trick or treating was fairly intimidating to me as a child.

One of the best Halloween songs is “Five Little Pumpkins”.  It has gestures, meaningful sounds, words, phrases, and you can make visuals pretty easily with five orange, round objects (balls or pieces of felt or paper).

Clicking on the following pictures will take you to Amazon. (These are affiliate links.)


Happy Halloween!!!

Be sure to “like” and follow my my Facebook page for all the latest play ideas and information regarding my play classes and parent workshops!

Also, once Halloween is over… you might start thinking about Christmas shopping!!!  Be sure to check out Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!

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