Helping toddlers with their first words – mix it up and make them useful (the words, not the toddlers)!

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A couple of years ago, in a trendy Inner West cafe, I spied a Very Committed Dad sitting across from his terribly young daughter.  They could barely see each other over the small mountain of branded flashcards in the middle of the table.  Dad scooped up a deck’s worth, and shuffled them like a croupier.

My super-speech-senses activated.  I couldn’t resist eavesdropping:

Said Dad:

Ruby, say…






The list of wild animals went on and on.  Then came fruit, and shapes, and numbers, and finally body parts.  All the favourites you see in lots of colourful products targeted at parents, stroke survivors and speech pathologists, alike.

I rolled my eyes and went back to sipping my Long Black and ignoring the Norah Jones song. Why?

Consider: what did Dad’s words have in common?  Two things:

1. They were all nouns, which couldn’t themselves be combined to produce meaningful phrases and sentences.

2. Unless planning a safari on a tropical island inhabited by shape-shifting surgeons, they were not the most useful set of words for a young child to know.

What should Dad have been focusing on?

Van Tatenhove has done lots of research on the normal language development of children.  Her findings (2005) tell us that the focus for new vocabulary in children with developing language should be on high frequencyre-usable vocabulary that can be combined and used across a number of events and activities needed throughout your life.  These words are sometimes referred to collectively as “core vocabulary“.

Like most great research, the answer seems obvious once you ask the right question!

But which words to teach?

  • Van Tatenhove has looked at this question in the context of which words to include in communication devices for young children with disabilities.  She recommends words from a variety of word classes, including pronouns (I, me, you, it, mine, he, and she); verbs (do, put, is, make, let, get , want); negation (no, not, don’t); prepositions (with, for, to, in, on); question words (what, where); modifiers (gone, more, small, all) and generic locations (here, there, away).
  • In 2003, a Dr Banajee and colleagues identified the top 22 words used by typically-developing toddlers.  For a late-talking child, these may be a good place to start – unless he or she also has a speech sound disorder impacting on expressive language – a complicated and entirely different topic for another day!

Banajee’s words:

1. all done/finished

2. go

3. help

4. here

5. I

6. in

7. is

8. it

9. mine

10. more

11. my

12. no

13. off

14. on

15. out

16. some

17. that

18. the

19. want

20. what

21. yes/yeah

22. you

Certainly all much more useful than teaching your child the words necessary to describe this:


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Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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