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Vocabulary Development in Toddlers

Every parent and caregiver listens for that magical moment when those baby coos to turn into toddler words. Have fun with this stage of your child's development by playing rhyming games, singing songs, telling stories and using descriptive language. Your toddler may not be able to use these words yet, or attach meaning to them, but she will see your joy from being able to communicate and the diversity of ways to do so.

The Range of Speech Development

Jennifer Getch, Director and Speech Language Pathologist at NW Speech Therapy, describes how broad the range can be for toddler speech development. She says, "Easy lip sounds (p,b,m) can start as early as 6 months with babbling. The p, b, m, d, and n sounds emerge at 12 to 15 months and are much more solid by 2 years. At 3 years, toddlers begin to use f, g, k, w sounds, and ch, j, l, s, z, sh, y sounds are mastered between 4 and 5 years. Some children are continuing to work on the r and s blends into the 6 to 7 year range."

Just because your baby is speaking does not mean everyone will understand her. According to Getch, "An 18-month-old is typically 25 percent intelligible overall to outsiders. A 2-year-old is 50 percent intelligible, while a 3-year-old is about 75 percent intelligible overall. Children hit the 90 to 100 percent intelligible range around 4 years, although sound development can continue to develop up until 7 years old."

Toddler Vocabulary Milestones

While the quality of pronunciation varies, you can also track the number of words your child is speaking. Getch outlines these toddler vocabulary milestones. "Although there is a wide range of what constitutes 'normal' vocabulary development there are averages with which a child develops both a receptive (what they understand) and an expressive vocabulary (what words they actually use). The average vocabulary of a 9- to 12-month-old is one to five words, 10 to 50 words by 18 months."

A significant transition happens when many toddlers master 50 words. They "begin putting two words together to form phrases," says Getch. "The average vocabulary for a 2-year-old is 200 words and a 3-year-old can have 450 words. A thousand words for a 4-year-old with an average of four to five words used in a sentence."

Promoting Toddler Vocabulary Development

"A strong vocabulary is the cornerstone of language and communication," states Getch. She recommends several activities for families that help promote vocabulary and speech development. She says, "Read to your child daily. Ask them to name pictures in the books. ... And have them point to pictures as you name them." She encourages parents to prompt their toddlers to use descriptive language as they play and go about their days. They may ask their toddlers to describe what is happening while they move toy cars, build with blocks, role-play with stuffed animals or draw. Getch also suggests parents and educators verbally label objects in their surroundings.

MORE: Why Teaching Your Kid Bi-Lingually Is Better

Warning Signs of Speech Problems

Several signs point to potential problems in toddlers' speech development. Getch lists some of the most common warnings, including "No attempts (gestures, pointing, grunting) at getting their point across; any regression in learning; difficulty following directions; limited vocabulary; little to no eye contact and/or attempts at socializing with family; grunting vs. using words after 2 years; significantly reducing syllables in a word (such as) 'uh' for 'monkey'; and appearing to have difficulty hearing."

Formal Assessment of Vocabulary Development

The KidsHealth site describes what happens when parents seek a formal assessment of possible speech delays. Parents may get a referral from their primary care doctor to get an evaluation from a speech-language pathologist. The pathologist assesses what your toddler understands, what your child says, your child's nonverbal communication tactics, the clarity of your child's speech and any oral-motor issues. The pathologist will diagnose any issues and recommend treatment, which might include speech therapy.

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