• autonomy: ability to make decisions for oneself and direct one’s own behavior
  • empathy: ability to recognize, share, understand, and consider another person’s feelings
  • positive guidance: helping a child learn good behaviors and self control

Expand Toddlers’ Language as You Talk, Read, and Play Together

Before watching this video, read the text below. When instructed, watch the segment of video beginning at 2:40 and ending at 4:51.

To start the video in the middle, click the play arrow. Then move your cursor along the progress bar. Click the progress bar when you reach the time you'd like to start.

Language explodes during the young toddler period. At first, children may use actions, gestures, signs, and babble talk to communicate and say few, if any, words. They understand a lot more than they are able to say, however, and may show this by following simple directions. Soon, they will communicate with single words, then put words together, and then finally speak (or sign) in full sentences—often in more than one language! To support this growth, it is especially important for you, along with families, to provide young toddlers with many language-building opportunities.

  • Talk with children and give them time to respond. A young toddler may take up to 5 seconds to put her thoughts into words. Young toddlers also need time to process what you say. Use short, simple sentences, especially when the child is expected to follow a direction, respond to a question, or learn a new word. But toddlers also need to hear more complex language that stretches their abilities. You can add just enough challenge by tuning in and listening intently to a child’s verbal and nonverbal communications, putting the child’s communications into fuller sentences, and building on the child’s ideas.
  • Use interesting words and phrases that will expand toddlers’ vocabularies. Most young toddlers are eager to learn new words. In fact, a word for “What’s that?” or “Look at that?” is often among the first 50 words children say. Pairing new words with actions, signs, pictures, or real objects helps to make their meaning clear. Repeating the words themselves helps toddlers to remember them. When you and a toddler’s family keep each other informed about the child’s new words, you can both better understand what he may be trying to say. You can both also help the toddler to hear and use a word in different situations and to connect it with a range of experiences and ideas.
  • Use books and songs to extend language and concepts. Books and songs introduce words, concepts, information, and language forms that children may not otherwise encounter. Books often include unusual words or phrasings, descriptive language, and names for items that children may not interact with in their everyday worlds. Popular toddler songs often highlight categories such as body parts, colors, and farm animals, and concepts such as counting, directions, and opposites. You can also make up new song verses or put new words to familiar tunes so that children can practice new words, concepts, and actions.
  • Read books one-to-one or in small groups, in ways that encourage active involvement. The real power of reading with toddlers is in the conversations that a book sparks. When you read with individual children or very small groups, children can point out and name pictures, act out story events, ask and answer questions, repeat words and phrases that are fun to say, and, with your help, make connections to related experiences.
  • Talk, read, and play with children in all of their languages. Young toddlers can learn two or more languages if they have frequent opportunities to both hear and use them. Learning more than one language can help toddlers stay connected with family and community members and traditions. It also contributes to skills like memory, focus, and flexible thinking.

These rich language experiences build a strong foundation for the rapid language and intellectual growth that happens during the next two years.

In this segment, you’ll see educators extending young toddlers’ language during one-to-one moments like hand washing, while sharing books with one or two children, and while reading or singing songs with larger groups.

Now watch the video segment. Begin at 2:40 when Eileen says, “Come on up” and end at 4:51 as Kathy and the children finish singing. As you watch, look for effective strategies used by the educators in the video and jot down answers to these viewing questions in your Learning Log.

  • As you watch, what do you notice about how the educators seize opportunities to expand children’s language?
  • How do the educators help children connect new words and concepts to pictures, actions, or events in a story or song? How do they help them make connections to prior experiences as they follow a story?
  • What other strategies do the educators use to engage toddlers in language-building conversations?


How can you help young toddlers who are just beginning to use words to communicate? How can you expand their language?

  • You can:
    • Listen patiently and respond to anything that sounds like a word.
    • Ask a child to show what she means if she does not have the words to say it.
    • Respond with words to what it seems a child is trying to say.
    • Repeat what the child communicated, and add a little bit more information.
    • Pair words with actions, objects, pictures, or context clues that make their meaning clear.
    • Use an engaging voice and facial expressions to show interest in what a toddler has to say.
    • Speak clearly, using simple sentences and checking to make sure that a toddler is following along and seems to understand.
    • Use rich language in situations where it comes naturally. Include words that may be beyond typical toddler vocabulary (such as scrub, penguin, and delivery person).
    • Give toddlers time to repeat new words.
    • Find many opportunities for one-on-one conversation and language expansion.
    • Extend conversations through several exchanges. Build on a toddler’s ideas.
    • Stay in close touch with families so both you and the families know the words or signs a toddler uses and the experiences he may want to talk about (in his home language and in yours, if they are different).

How can you share books with young toddlers in ways that encourage their active involvement and expand their language?

  • You can:
    • Read with children one-to-one or in small groups so that children can ask questions, actively participate, and engage in back-and-forth conversation.
    • Let toddlers choose books to be read aloud.
    • Read favorite books over and over so that children become familiar with them.
    • Select books that depict or describe actions toddlers might want to imitate or silly rhymes they might want to repeat.
    • Act out words or parts of the story together with children.
    • Read with expression and use different voices and sound effects.
    • Pause to let toddlers repeat or fill in words and sound effects they know.
    • Name pictures that toddlers point to, ask about, or seem interested in, and ask them to point to pictures or details as they are named.
    • Give toddlers a chance to repeat new words and phrases.
    • Ask open-ended questions about the pictures, characters, or story events.
    • Draw connections between pictures, words, and events in the books and children’s experiences.
    • Encourage and respond to toddlers’ questions.
    • Talk about characters’ feelings.
    • Ask toddlers what they think and build on their ideas.
    • Remember that reading doesn’t have to happen while sitting down, at circle time, or even inside. You and your toddlers can even make up the words. With toddlers, books are springboards for conversation and play. Use them frequently and have fun together!

What songs, movement games, and finger plays do you like to share with young toddlers? How do you introduce words and concepts you might want young toddlers to learn as you do these activities together?


Think about the toddlers in your own program as you answer these reflection questions in your Learning Log.

  • When do you find opportunities for one-to-one conversations? How do you expand toddlers’ language as you talk, read, and play together?
  • What did you learn that you will take back to your learning environment and put into practice?
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