“Oh, you want to read that book?”
“Okay, let’s read the book.”
If you have a toddler, maybe this kind of conversation sounds familiar. To an outsider, it may seem a little silly. However, exchanges like this are one of the best ways to improve toddler language development.
Reading, singing, and narrating are crucial to early language development. However, during a key window of age 18-24 months, there’s another activity that also has a dramatic influence. I refer to two-way conversations between the child and an adult. Today’s post reviews what this means and how to engage in these conversations with the young kids in your life.
How do conversations with toddlers help language development?
There’s a lot of interesting research on language development in early childhood. I think about this 2009 paper all the time. It showed that “turn taking” in conversations with toddlers relates to language later in life. They defined these two-way conversations as a child speaking and an adult responding within five seconds. Then the child responded again within five seconds. They studied how many exchanges took place between the adult and the child. And? A higher number of turns in these conversations was linked to improved language development later.
How do you have a conversation with a young toddler?
So, how do we carry on a conversation with young kids? It’s key that an adult responds to a child in such a way that the child answers back. Between 18 and 24 months, children are just learning to put two words together to make short sentences. (“More cheese,” is the one I’m familiar with these days). So, these conversations need the adult to take the lead.
One strategy is to use the same “word” as the toddler, but in a more complete sentence. It’s one way to continue the topic. It also emphasizes the correct pronunciation of their word.
Alternately, if an adult is narrating their activities (often recommended for parents with young babies to encourage language development) and the toddler comments on something, it’s an opportunity for the adult. They can shift gears, pause, and find a way to respond to the child.
Here’s a recent example*:
“It’s a nice day. We’re walking together.”
“Hat.” (points to head)
“Yes, we’re wearing hats. Hmmm, what else are we wearing?”
“We both have shoes on.”
“We have one shoe on each foot. I’m wearing two shoes and you’re wearing two shoes. “
“Walk. Biiiiig walk.” (arms outstretched)
“It is a big walk today. We’re all the way to the playground.”
* Note: In real life, the pronunciation from the toddler probably won’t be so precise. “Wa” for “walk,” for example. The complete words are written above for clarity.
Slowing down a little can help.
Young children speak and process more slowly than adults. So, if we adults ask a child a question, it’s great to wait a few extra seconds for them to respond. With some kids, we can look at their face and see that they’re processing.
Our actual pace of speech can slow down, too. A speech therapist taught me a rule of thumb for speaking with young kids. She said that young children process speech at about the rate Mr. Rogers spoke on his television show. I know I have to very intentionally slow my usual speech when I’m trying to connect with young kids. It’s not effortless!
Which ages need these kinds of conversations for their language development?
Children of any age benefit from an adult engaging and talking with them. Newborns appreciate the comfort of a parent’s voice. Older kids and teens need validation and problem-solving. Or, they just enjoy a nice chat.
And toddlers? Toddlers are learning how to actually talk. They’re in between the new baby stage of absorbing words without being able to respond and the school-aged time where they are learning to articulate complex thoughts.
And, within the toddler years, ages 18-24 months seem to be the key time frame when conversations will have the biggest impact. So, especially for this short window, I encourage all caregivers to really strive for those two-way conversations.
So, how do toddlers learn to converse?
Young toddlers learn language the way they learn many other things. This means they learn by trying and doing. So, language development in early childhood comes from social interactions. And, although kids can and do learn from each other, the biggest language influence comes from adults.
This means toddlers can hear an adult use complete sentences (however short). The adult also uses more words than the toddler can say themselves. This small study showed that the more “adult” language used, the more advanced vocabulary kids had later in life. (It’s hard to say if there’s a clear cause and effect here, of course. Adults may adapt their language based on what their child seems to understand).
This has been studied since, and we keep getting more proof on how important this is. This 2018 paper, for example, found that before 18 months and after 24 months, the impact of these conversations was smaller. However, the connections during that 18-24 month time? Huge. They found “significant correlations between turn-taking interactions early in life and cognitive and speech-language skills at 9 to 13 years of age.”
Why does language development in toddlers matter?
Language development in early childhood is linked to the ability to understand information later in life (literacy). Understanding something written or spoken has a huge impact! I often think of “health literacy.” This refers to someone’s ability to receive and understand information about their health in order to make healthcare decisions. Higher levels of health literacy are linked to better health overall. This is just one reason I’m so passionate about literacy in kids. It will help them be healthier for the rest of their lives.
Summary: Two-way conversations are important for language development in early childhood.
If you’re looking for a way to boost your child in the future, have a chat with them today. If we focus on an actual back-and-forth exchange, wait for them to answer, and slow our own pace, these little conversations make a big impact.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., F.A.A.P. is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.