Let's Play: the speech and language way

Speech and language therapy ideas for playing at home


Toddler speech

Watch Me: tips for increasing visual attention for early talkers

Babies aren’t born knowing how to talk. They learn, from us. Although a first word is a major milestone, there are so many communication skills they need to master before that first word is ever heard. Watching others is how most babies learn to do…well, most anything! They watch us point, they want to point. They watch us clap, they try to clap. They watch us stick out our tongue, they want to do the same. If they are listening and watching then when we say “bababa” they might give it a try. Watching leads to imitation and imitation leads to learning. So what do we do when our little ones aren’t naturally watching us?

If you have a little one in speech therapy already, you may have heard that you should hold objects near your mouth when you name them so that your little one can watch your mouth move while looking at the object at the same time. It’s a good strategy. I recommend it all the time. But why?

If you’ve ever felt that your child isn’t listening to you and doesn’t seem to imitate your sounds very often, it may be time to focus on visual attention. What is that? It just means encouraging your little one to watch you: watch your mouth, watch your facial expressions, watch your actions. They can’t imitate well if they aren’t watching. Start there. Imitation is key. Didn’t I say that already? Oh, yes, repetition is important too!

Additionally, watching an adult’s mouth move is important for learning how to say specific sounds more accurately and realizing that my mouth needs to open, or my lips need to close, or my tongue needs to go up – whatever the case may be. Either way… if you have a little one learning to talk or a preschooler trying to say sounds more accurately… encouraging them to watch your mouth can be hugely beneficial!

Maybe it works for you if you just say “look at me”. Great! Go with that! However, most toddlers don’t really like to be told what to do so we need to get creative…

Draw attention to your face

  • Hold objects near your mouth when you name it. When your toddler wants milk (or anything), pause before you give it to them and just say the word clearly while you hold it near your mouth. “Milk.” You don’t need to ask them to do it. Just say the word. Watch that their eyes shift from the milk to your mouth and back again.
  • Blow bubbles and PAUSE while you hold the wand near your mouth to say “bubble” or “go”. If they are awaiting the bubble to appear from the wand, they are also staring straight at your mouth!
  • Make funny faces or sounds in a mirror. Bonus points for using painter’s tape to create a frame on large bathroom mirrors. Mirror play can also be a little less intimidating for those who are hesitant to make eye contact in close proximity.
  • Make a cardboard frame and hold it up around your face.
  • Cut out a hole in a cardboard box and wear it like a helmet. Now you are an astronaut or you’re on TV!
  • Use a puppet theater but instead of using puppets, use yourself!
  • Talk through the cut outs in board books.
  • Hold up a diving ring or pop toob to put a colorful circle around your face.
  • Cup your hands around your mouth, but hold them open wide enough to not cover your mouth. Then call out or “sing out” to objects/people that you are trying to find.
  • Play peek-a-boo with the slats around a crib… or anywhere with anything.
  • Wear bright lipstick! Then make lip stamps on paper for a fun mouth moving activity…”mmmmwah!”
  • Put on a paper plate mask with a large opening for your mouth – or any mask that shows your mouth.

Do something different or out of the ordinary

  • Imitate your toddler. We spend a lot of time saying words he isn’t yet able to say and encouraging him to try. It’s a perfect recipe for a toddler to tune you out! However, if we say “babadada” after they do it first, that might be different and interesting because mom and dad can say HIS sounds and then he may pay more attention since it’s something he can already do! Sometimes a little easy practice is a nice change.
  • Be forgetful. When you don’t remember where a highly preferred item is or can’t see it (when it’s clearly in view), this may prompt your little one to A) wonder what happened to you and/or B) desperately try to get your attention to help you. Either way, they are more likely to look at you.
  • Be incorrect. Similar to being forgetful, purposefully name their favorite toy or food or person something different with an uncertain tone then pause… wait. They, again, might think you are crazy or try to help their poor mom who just can’t seem to get things right.
  • Turn lights off and get out a flashlight! Don’t scare your little one with a spooky face, but put the light directly onto your mouth. Make some easy sounds “aaahhh” “oooo” “mmmm” so they can watch how your mouth changes.
  • Whisper. Teachers know this one well. If you turn off lights or clap your hands in a rhythm to see who’s paying attention, these subtle changes may help gain some control over a noisy room. Similarly, instead of talking loudly or even in a normal voice, try super quiet. When you whisper, your toddler may wonder what the secret is all about and watch you more intently.
  • Use an action around your mouth while you talk or make sounds. Make silly sounds like “aaaahhhh” and pat your mouth at the same time, that way they not only need to listen to what you are saying, but need to watch how you did that.

Once your little ones are watching you, they have a much better chance of doing what you’re doing and maybe even saying what you’re saying.

Other posts you may be interested in:

FREE Handouts

Do Not Let This Moment Pass

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POWER words

BAM!  POW!  ZOOM!  If you were a superhero, those might be your “power words”.  When you’re a toddler, your “power words” are the ones that are:


When thinking about words that might be highly motivating for your little one to learn, stick with what their interests are and what they may need to say frequently or what they see frequently.  For many families, teaching their child academic words like letters and colors and shapes and numbers is a high priority.  If your child is interested in these concepts and you teach them to use them functionally “the red car, the ball is a circle, you have two crackers”, etc… then that’s great!  However, when you’re thinking about helping a little one learn to communicate who has no words or very few words, think POWER WORDS.  When you use the right power word at the right moment, you may hear your child attempt to imitate you – and then you know you chose the right word!  It’s a Magical Moment.

  • Start by making a list of your child’s favorite/frequent foods, toys, people, activities.
  • Add some functional/frequent words like “more, no, yes, hi, bye, all done, mine, go, stop, uh-oh (yep, that’s a word)”
  • Make a purposeful effort to use these words throughout the day

Seems simple, right?

When your child is playing with cars, say “car” many ways and many times – not in long, complicated sentences but just the single word.  Make car noises, wave hi/bye to the cars, and when the car successfully makes the jump you celebrate with “YESSSSS!”

When your child is eating, say “eat” many ways and many times.  Personally, I sing songs about eating, but that’s just me.  Give them only a small portion of what you think they will want and give them the opportunity to request “more” or respond “yes” when you ask if they want more.  Purposefully give them the wrong food or utensil and YOU say “oops, NO” (in a playful, mommy made a mistake kind of way).  Teach them words, feed them words.

When you are looking at a book, pick a power word and stick with it.  If you want to practice the word “hi” then just say “hi” to every person or animal on every page.  No need to read all the text.  If “ball” is a power word and it’s in the book somewhere then search each page for it asking “baaaalll?”  When you find it, say “BALL”.  That’s it.  No need for long sentences.  Focus on the power word.

In each example above, I wrote what YOU the adult should say.  Speech therapists like to call that “modeling” words.  YOU are saying words, your child is listening.  They are listening to words that are favorites and frequent.  There’s a much better chance they will try to imitate these words.

The same concept applies when working with preschoolers who might be working on saying specific sounds.

Recently I was looking for some words that have the “sh” sound and most of the pre-made materials included words like “sheriff, ocean, chef” – not exactly things this preschooler is going to talk about on a regular basis.  So, we had to make our own pictures for POWER words like “show” (to request a TV show), “shoe” (because he puts them on and takes them off at least 2-3 times per day), “sure” (because that’s how he likes to agree), and “push” (because he frequently needed his mother’s help to push something closed or to connect train tracks/race track pieces).  These words were motivating, interesting, useful, and highly repetitive throughout the day.  No need to carve out artificial “speech” time.  Just work on the words as you go through your daily activities.  The power words will give you plenty of opportunity to practice without needing to have 30 minutes of “speech” time.

What are your child’s power words?

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

Other posts you may like:

Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery

Playing with…BOOKS!

Where are the WORDS?

Empower older siblings to teach

Your toddler doesn’t use many words.  If he has an older, very talkative sibling in the house you may have been told that this could be the problem…she is doing all of the talking for him.  So, you try to tell her to please let her brother have a turn to say a word.  She can’t seem to do that.  She wants to help.  She wants him to talk.  She wants to give him what she knows he needs and wants.  She’s his lifeline to the world of communication!

I love that.  Let’s use that.  She just needs some tools, some strategies…a game plan.

I often ask older siblings for their ideas about how to help their little brother say stuff or even just make sounds.  Their little brothers love to watch them, imitate them, be like them.  That’s hugely motivating!

In my experience, I’ve seen older siblings help little ones learn to use sign language, make meaningful sounds, say names of TV show characters that I never would’ve even known to try, produce new sounds accurately, and can sometimes even get their younger sibling to say a new word just by saying “say ______“.  This never works for anyone else.  Ever.

Older siblings who are learning about letter sounds or are beginning to read are even great helpers when it comes to identifying the sounds that the little one might be leaving out or saying incorrectly.  Encouraging the older sibling to identify and emphasize those sounds can help BOTH siblings learn.  Example:  Did you hear how your little brother said “doh” instead of “go”?  What sound do you think he needs to change?  Right.  The “g”.  That’s the sound that G makes.  

Rather than telling an older sibling to stop talking and give the little one a chance, empower that older sibling to help.  ASK THEM what they think might work to help their little brother make more noise or say more words.  They might tell you that their little brother always makes farting noises whenever they do!  Well, it’s a start.

Recently I had the opportunity to work with an older brother, let’s call him Jack.  He was his little brother’s favorite playmate.  Let’s call the little brother Max.  During the session I spent a lot of time with Jack talking about how he could simplify words into sounds so that Max might be able to say things just like him.  Jack was able to figure out that instead of saying train he could say “choo choo” and instead of saying dinosaur he could  “ROAR!”  Then we spent time chasing Max around with his shopping cart and saying “ready, set….” Jack easily figured out that he should let Max finish the phrase with “GO!”  Jack was so on board with everything that we were doing he even took the lead for the next 5-10 minutes.  Mom and I were an afterthought at best.  Speech “therapy” was happening without the therapist.  Yes!

Near the end of my time at their house, I asked Jack what he thought worked well and what he would like to keep doing with Max in order to help him talk more.  I was expecting him to say “use sounds” or “let Max finish phrases we say all the time”.  Instead, here was his response:

“Magic tricks”

Yep.  That’s what he said.  I was slightly confused and a little disappointed that my strategies weren’t immediately embraced.

I responded, “You want to practice magic tricks to help Max talk more?”

Jack:  “Yep, it’s just like magic.

Me:  “What do you mean?”

Jack:  “Well, when we were running around with the shopping cart we were like saying the things he should find.  Then I kind of took things away, hid them again, and he had to say something if he wanted it back.  Like magic.”

I started to get it.

Me:  “I think I understand.  You want to make things disappear and Max can make them reappear when he uses a sound or a word?”

Jack:  “Yep.  Like magic.”

Makes perfect sense.  Why didn’t I describe it this way to begin with?  Jack loved magic.  He made sense of what I was trying to help him learn by associating it with his favorite hobby!  When they were searching for objects to put in the shopping cart Jack would call out (in a sing song voice) “ba-aall” and “do-ggy”.  Max would imitate, not with an exact word, but definitely using that same sing song voice.  He was trying.  That’s what was important.  He wanted to be like his brother.  He wanted to make that object appear.  He wanted to see the magic trick!  Give an older sibling the right tools and they can be a powerful and motivating teacher for the younger sibling.

Sure, it might start with just imitation of farting noises or dinosaur roars, but older siblings understand silly.  Sometimes silly is what gets the magic started.


Tips for empowering the older sibling who wants to help:

  1. Ask what she does that the little one always try to do just like her
  2. Ask what she does that make the little one laugh
  3. Ask if she knows what some of the little one’s sounds or gestures mean
  4. Show her how to use a single word to confirm the meaning of that sound or gesture
  5. Encourage her to sing and teach her little sibling the songs she knows
  6. Praise her efforts to encourage imitation and not just provide interpretation

Want to know more about a toddler’s speech?

Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery

Looking for strategies to use at home?

Two little words to encourage communication

Where are the WORDS?

Toy recommendations?

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

Toys that do nothing

Be sure to follow my blog or “like” my page on Facebook for all of my play and language learning tips!

Thank you for reading and sharing.


Say it how you say it

Silent letters, “rules” that have more exceptions than the norm, and letters that make different sounds when combined with others… Ah, yes, the English language is a mess when it comes to spelling.  Why IS there an “e” at the end of so many words that makes no sound at all?  Who in the world decided that “I before E” was a rule or that I’s and E’s together were even necessary as they sometimes make the “ay” sound like “neighbor” – ugh.  Trying to help my kindergartner understand some of these AND that “ph” is actually an “f” sound (our most recent discussion)… whew, this is complicated.

BUT, this article isn’t about writing or spelling – thankfully.  This is about helping our little ones learn to talk.  As adults we often think of a word as it is spelled.  I want my little one to say my name so I think MOMMY in my head.  I want her to say “car” so I see this spelling in my head.  I don’t have to worry yet that sometimes it could be a “k” that makes that sound.   Visualizing the word in our minds is usually ok when we are helping little ones with talking, but I often find it creates confusion with the letter T.

It’s perfectly normal for a little one to say “wawa” when they want water.  Naturally we try to help her say it more clearly and repeat back “wa-TER”.  This is the problem.

Do YOU naturally say “waTer” with a “t” sound in the middle of that word?  Most Americans don’t.  We say something like “wadder”.  Most of the time we make middle “t” sounds like a “d” when there are vowel sounds surrounding it.  Examples (read aloud): little, better, bottle, batter, hotter, later, fighter, butter, cheetah, spaghetti, computer.  Did you use a “t” sound or a “d” sound?

Here’s another issue with T in the middle – sometimes we don’t say it at all!  Read these examples aloud: kitten, mitten, button, football, wanted, mountain, interview.  Did you say “t” in those words?

What’s my point?  Well, if we want to help our little ones say “water” correctly then don’t overemphasize the “t” if you normally wouldn’t say it.  If you wouldn’t normally say “t” when looking at the cuddly kitten in the book, then don’t emphasize “kiTTen” when you model it for your child.  If you want your child to say words the same way you do, sometimes we have to forget about how we spell and just say it how we say it!

Here are some other thoughts about letters and sounds and speaking and writing…

If your older child needs to correct the “s” sound be sure to include the word “ceiling” but not the word “shoe”.

If you’re practicing T words then include the word “toy” but not “train” as we usually say “tr” with more of a “ch” sound.

Lastly, if focusing on W words be sure to include the number “one”.  Yep, O-N-E starts with a “w” sound!

Gotta love the English language.  It’s a wonder anyone learns how to spell or speak! Ha!

For more information about a toddler’s speech development, you may want to read:

Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery

For toys to help with talking, you may want to check out:

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




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!

Be sure to “like” and follow me on Facebook for all of my play and language learning tips!


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