Toy Talk: How Toys Impact Language Development in Toddlers

Many parents wonder which toys will best help their toddlers learn to talk. Before answering this question, it’s important to remember that toddler language develops across a wide range of daily activities and routines. In fact, we don’t have to use toys at all!  Daily, routine activities such as meal times, bedtime, diaper changes, and car rides can all offer up powerful and repeated opportunities for learning language (Brown & Woods, 2015).   But, if we do use to use toys to help children learn to talk, there are some important things to consider. 

First, it’s easy to believe that the flashier the toy, the better.  Walk down any toy aisle in any store, and you’ll be quickly surrounded by fancy toys that light up and talk and dance and sing.  Although these toys seem like obvious choices for helping a toddler learn language (after all, the toys themselves are using language), these toys might not be the best choice after all. 

One recent study found that play with traditional, non-electronic toys such as blocks, puzzles, stacking cups, dolls & tea sets was better at promoting language-rich interactions than was play with battery-operated electronic toys (Sosa, 2016).  When children in this study played with traditional, non-electronic toys, parent used more words and took more turns in the conversation and children vocalized more frequently.

This is really important because a recent study from MIT found that the longer parents engaged in back-and-forth conversations with their children, the stronger the children’s “language centers” in their brains were and the better children did on tests of language (Trafton, 2018).  So, while electronic toys are fun, they just don’t appear to be the best at promoting the type of back-and-forth conversations that are so crucial to language development. 

toys toddlers and talking.png

Second, many people also believe that that more toys are better than fewer toys.  A child who has many toys has many opportunities for language, right? Maybe not. At least one study has shown that too many toys out at one time can lead to decreased attention and creativity in play (Dauch, Imwalle, Ocasio & Metz, 2018).

Toddlers in this study used toys more creatively and spent more time in play when they had 4 toys out at one time as compared to when they had 16 toys out at one time.  Because we know that play and language are related to each other, it may be important to think about limiting the number of toys we have out at any one time.  

Finally, it’s also important to note that not all electronics need to be avoided all the time.  Despite the above evidence suggesting that traditional toys are better than electronic toys, some studies have found that electronic books can be used promote language development in toddlers. Butler, Brown, & Woods (2014), for example, found that toddlers can learn new words while engaged in digital interactive story books. The key part about this study, though, is that each child was interacting with an adult who was using strategies to build language during the book reading.        

The bottom line, then, is this: Although choosing toys carefully may be important, the magic really isn’t in the toys at all. Instead, the real power to build language is found within the conversational interactions children have with the parents who play toys alongside them.   

Becca Jarzynski, M.S., CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and a Clinical Instructor at UW- Eau Claire.  You can find more of her blog posts at

Brown, J. and Woods, J. (2015).  Effects of a triadic parent-implemented home-based communication intervention for toddlers.  Journal of Early Intervention, 37 (1), 44-48. 

Butler, C. Brown, J. & Woods, J. (2014). Teaching at-risk toddlers new vocabulary using interactive digital storybooks.  Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 41, 155-168. 

Dauch, C., Imwalle, M., Ocasio, B., Metz, A. (2018). The influence on the number of toys in the environment on toddler’s play.  Infant Behavior and Development, 50, 78-87. 

Sosa, A. (2016).  Association of the type of toy used during play with the quantity and quality of parent-infant communication. JAMA Pediatrics, 170 (2), 132-137. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753

Trafton, A. (2018, February 13). Back-and-forth exchanges boost children’s brain response to language. MIT News. Retrieved from:


Talk to Toddlers – But Not in Telegraphic Speech!

Talking to toddlers is very important; in fact, it’s the most important thing we can do when working to help a toddler’s language grow.  How we talk to toddlers, though, is important, and recent research suggests that we should avoid telegraphic speech when talking to little ones.  

“Telegraphic speech” occurs when we speak like we would in, well, a telegraph.  In other words, we omit the “small” words that make a sentence grammatically correct and include only the important words - mainly nouns and verbs.  Examples of telegraphic speech include: “put in box” “doggie run” or “mommy feed baby” (Venker & Stronach, 2017). In each of these utterances, the grammatical aspects of the sentence were left out. 

Many people mistakenly believe that it’s easier for a child to imitate telegraphic speech, especially when kiddos are just starting to use two-word phrases.  This is an easy assumption to make, because toddlers naturally use telegraphic speech when they are learning to talk.  A child’s use of telegraphic speech is totally normal and is an important stage of language development. Around 18 months, children learn that they can create two-word phrases (mommy go; puppy drink; more milk); in doing so, they’ve begun to harness the true power of language.  Because this move into two-word phrases is so important and very normal, adults might choose to use these phrases around children, hoping that the child will imitate those two-word phrases. However, recent research suggests that children are no more likely to imitate telegraphic speech than they are to imitate short, but grammatically correct, phrases and sentences (Bredin-Oja, S., & Fey, M., 2014). 


Talk to Toddlers – But Not in Telegraphic Speech!.png

It’s important for adults to avoid using telegraphic speech because children learn to use language by hearing language.  One of their main jobs during early language development is to figure out the rules that apply to the language that they are learning.  When, for example, do we put “the” before a noun and when do we put “a” before a noun? When do we put “ing” on a word instead of “ed” (walking vs. walked)? Every language has rules that dictate word order and “grammar,” and every new language learner must figure these rules out.  Children do this by primarily by listening! So, the theory goes, if we use telegraphic speech, we’re taking away really important information that children need to learn the grammatical rules of language.

Recent research seems to support this theory, especially for children who struggle to learn language.  One recent meta-analysis (a review of a bunch of studies) looked at parent-child interactions of children with language delays or disorders.  The researchers found that parents who used more grammatically complex utterances with their children had children with more positive language outcomes (Sandback, & Yoder, 2016).   This was especially true if the children had an autism spectrum disorder (Sandback, & Yoder, 2016; Venker et. al 2015).    

Here’s the kicker, though. It is important to keep our language simple when talking to toddlers. The trick is in keeping our language simple, but grammatically correct. It’s not that we need to, or should, use full sentences with toddlers all the time. Instead, we can choose to either use single words, short phrases, or what are called grammatically simplified utterances.  Here are some examples:

If a child sees a cat running outside: 

DO use a single word: “cat” 

Or, DO use a short but grammatically correct phrase: “nice cat”

Or, DO use short but grammatically correct sentences: “The cat is running.”

But DON’T use telegraphic speech: “cat run”

If a child points at his dad, eating breakfast: 

DO use a single word: “daddy”

Or, DO use short but grammatically correct sentence: “Daddy’s eating”

Or, DO use a slightly longer but grammatically correct sentences: “Daddy’s eating breakfast”

But DON’T use telegraphic speech: “daddy eat breakfast”



It’s worth noting that not all experts in the field agree with this opinion (Van Kleet et al., 2010). It’s also really important to note that the research discussed above has been completed on children who struggle to learn language, not typically developing children.   However, the rationale behind the recommendation to avoid use of telegraphic speech might still apply to typically developing children: children need to hear the grammatical aspects of language to learn those elements!  So, whether your child is developing typically, is a late talker, or is a child who struggles more significantly with language learning, the suggestion would be the same: Talk to your toddler! Just not in toddler talk.  

Becca Jarzynski, M.S., CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and a Clinical Instructor at UW- Eau Claire.  You can find more of her blog posts at

Bredin-Oja, S., & Fey, M. (2014). Children’s responses to telegraphic and grammatically complete prompts to imitate. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 23, 15–26.

Sandback, M., & Yoder, P. (2016).  The Association Between Parental Mean Length of Utterances and Language Outcomes in Children with Disabilities: A Correlational Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, (25): 240-251.

Van Kleet, A., Schwarz, A., Fey, M. Kaiser, A., Miller, J. & Weitzman, E. (2010) Should we use telegraphic or grammatical input in the early stages of language development with children who have language impairments? A meta-anlaysis of the research and expert opinion. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 19 (1): 3-21.

Venker, C., Bolt, D., Meyer, A., Sindberg., H. Ellis Weismer, S. Tager-Flusberg, H. (2015).  Parent Telegraphic Speech Use and Spoken Language in Preschoolers With ASD. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, December 2015, Vol. 58, 1733-1746

Venker, C., Stronach, S. (2017). When Is Simplifed too….Simple? The ASHA Leader, 22, 42-47. Retrieved from:

Building Language at Bedtime

reading to child

When toddlers have a hard time learning to talk, we often think about enrolling them in speech therapy. And while seeing a speech-language pathologist may, indeed, be an important part of boosting a toddler’s language skills, some of the most important language-building moments often occur outside of that toddler’s scheduled speech therapy sessions.  

We know that routines can be a powerful way to build a child’s language skills; when toddlers hear the same language in the same parts of their day, each day, it can help them to understand and use that language more effectively.  Routines-based intervention has been shown to lead to increases in the language skills of children who struggle to learn language (Brown & Woods, 2015). Little ones also learn best when engaging in warm, caring interactions with their parents (Center for The Developing Child at Harvard University, 2017).  Further, we know that parent-implemented intervention works! Study after study shows that parents can be very effective in building their child’s language skills (Buschmann, et al., 2009; Buschmann, A., Multhauf, Hasselhorn, & Pietz, J., 2015; Ha, 2015; Roberts & Kaiser, 2011; Roberts & Kaiser, 2015).  Bedtime becomes a perfect time to build language, simply because it is a routine activity that happens each day, with the people that the toddler loves the most.  

Speech-language therapy visits only last for about 60 minutes each week; this represents just 1% of a young child’s waking hours.  Integrating language-learning opportunities into a toddler’s daily activities, however, drastically increases the number of learning opportunities available to a child.  If a toddler engages in just ten daily activities and there are just five learning opportunities embedded into each activity, we’ve now provided the child with 350 learning opportunities in one week!

So how do we build language at bedtime? One simple way is to pick five to ten words to model during bedtime each night; just saying these same words over and over during interactions with a child can help to grow his understanding and use of language.  In studies completed by Girolametto, Pearce, & Weitzman (1996, 1997), for example, parents of children with expressive language delays picked ten target words to use around their children each day.  These parents were taught to weave these words into routines and use the words repeatedly within those routines. The authors found that, just by hearing these words repeatedly produced by their parents inside of interactive daily routines, the toddlers began to use more words. What’s more, the toddlers also began to produce more speech sounds!  When deciding upon the words to model during bedtime, we might pick from some of the following developmentally appropriate words (MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories: Words and Gestures, 2007):

During snack time: cracker, food, apple, banana, cheerios, cheese, cookie, milk, water, juice, eat, drink, cup, plate, spoon, more, all done, please

    During tooth brushing: teeth, cup, water, toothbrush, hot, cold, on, off, open

During bath time: bath, water, ear, eye, fingers, foot, hand, hair, knee, head, leg, nose, toe, tummy, towel, splash, wash, wipe, hot, cold, wet, clean, on, off, up, out

While getting undressed/dressed or during diaper changes/potty: diaper, potty, pajamas, shirt, pants, sock, on, off

During books: open, book, read, various animal names or common objects from the books

In bed: bed, blanket, pillow, night-night, hug, kiss, sleep, tired

Singing simple, repetitive songs can be another way to build a child’s language during bedtime. Songs have been used as a part of effective parent-implemented intervention approaches (Buschmann, et al., 2015).  The use of songs to facilitate language development often works best when singing songs that include gestures, because gestures and language development go hand-in-hand (Capone & McGregor, 2004).  For example, a parent might sing “Wheels on the Bus” during bath time; this can be a fun time to sing this song because parents can splash a bit as they make the motions to the song.  

reading smaller.jpg

Books can also be an integral part of a bedtime routine designed to promote language development.  Book-reading can be a fabulous way to build both language and pre-literacy skills; interactive book-reading has been demonstrated to be an important part of effective parent-implemented intervention approaches (Buschmann, et. al, 2009; Buschmann, et al., 2015).  It’s important for parents to know they don’t have to just read the words in a book. Instead, books can be part of an interactive conversation time.  Parents can pause during book reading to allow children to point to or talk about pictures that are interesting to them; parents can then respond by describing what their toddler is pointing at or talking about (Oh, look at the cat! He’s in the tree. Silly cat!”). Parents can ask also questions (“How will that cat get down?”) and use simple language to make comments about the things that are happening in the book.  Making book reading an interactive experience can be a very effective way of keeping toddlers engaged in books and, at the same time, boosting their language skills.

Finally, parents can provide their child with opportunities to use gestures, signs, or words inside of their bedtime routine.  Embedding communication temptations into routines can be a powerful way to help a child learn the power of communication. One easy way to embed communication temptations into a bedtime routine is to give a child lots of choices along the way.  During snack time, a little one can choose between two snacks or two drinks; during tooth-brushing she can choose which cup to use; during bath time, she can choose her bath toys or dictate which body part gets washed next; later, she can choose the order in which her PJs are put on, the book she reads, the songs she sings, the spots where mom and dad give kisses each night.  In each of these moments, parents can hold up and/or describe one of the two choices (“Do you want milk? Or water?” “Should I kiss your nose or cheek?”) and then wait for the child’s response. At first, a child might just point to what she wants. That’s okay! Parents can then say the word for what the child wants (“Oh, you want milk! Here’s milk. You love milk!) and move forward with the choice the child has made.

Over time, with repeated opportunities to make choices like this and gentle encouragement to use the language attached to the choices they make, children will frequently start using sounds, and then words, and then phrases, inside those moments. Parents can encourage their child to use a form of language that is just slightly more advanced than usual. For example, if a child typically doesn’t communicate at all, a parent can encourage gestures; if a child usually uses gestures, the parent can encourage spoken words or signs; if a child usually uses single words, parents can model and encourage two-word phrases. This type of enhanced milieu teaching procedure has been proven to build the language skills of toddlers – both late-talkers and children with more significant diagnoses such as developmental delay, Down Syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders (Brown and Woods, 2015; Roberts & Kaiser, 2011; Roberts & Kaiser, 2015).

There are a great many ways to build language during bedtime. Each of them holds potential for language learning.  Best of all, parents who use these strategies aren’t only building language, they’re also building a loving relationship with their child. In using these strategies, then, parents are setting their child up for a lifetime of learning!  



Becca Jarzynski, M.S., CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and a Clinical Instructor at UW- Eau Claire.  You can find more of her blog posts at


Brown, J. and Woods, J. (2015).  Effects of a triadic parent-implemented home-based communication intervention for toddlers.  Journal of Early Intervention, 37 (1), 44-48.

Buschmann, A., Multhauf, B., Hasselhorn, M., Pietz, J. (2015).  Long-term effects of a parent-based language intervention on language outcomes and working memory for late-talking toddlers. Journal of Early Intervention, 37 (3), 175–189

Buschmann, A. Jooss, B., Rupp, A., Feldhusen, F. Pietz, J. & Philippi, H. (2009). Parent-based language intervention for 2-year-old children with specific expressive language delay: A randomized controlled trial.  Archives of Disease in Childhood, 94, 110-116

Capone, N. and McGregor, K. (2004). Gesture Use: A Review for Clinical and Research Practices. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 47, 173-186.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2017). Three principles to improve outcomes for children and families. Retrieved from:

Girolametto, L., Pearce, P.S., & Weitzman, E. (1996).  Interactive focused stimulation for toddlers with expressive vocabulary delays. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 39(6), 1274-1283.

Girolametto, L., Pearce, P.S., & Weitzman, E. (1997).  Effects of lexical intervention on the phonology of late talkers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 40 (2) 338-348.

Ha, S. (2015).  Effectiveness of a parent-implemented intervention program for young children with cleft palate. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 79, 707-715.

MacArther-Bates Communicative Developmental Inventories (2007). Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing.

Roberts, M. And Kaiser, A. (2015).  Early intervention for toddlers with language delays: A randomized controlled trial.  Pediatrics, 135 (4).  DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-2134

Roberts, M. & Kaiser, A. (2011).  The effectiveness of parent-implemented language intervention: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 20, 180-199


Playing With Purpose: Bath Time

One of the most effective ways to build language is during routines, especially routines that occur every day. That’s why bath time is a great opportunity for you to connect with your child to build language. Bath time is a beloved activity for many children. It’s easy to incorporate Playing With Purpose and sneak in many language building interactions without your child ever realizing they are ever doing “work”.

Read More

Playing With Purpose: Candy Land

I use games all the time during my individual speech therapy sessions. They are a fantastic tool for speech, language, and social skill development in young children. Candy Land is a particular favorite of mine. I don’t have a great memory, but I do remember the version of Candy Land we had at home when I was a kid. It looks a little different these days, but the lessons are still the same.

Read More

Playing With Purpose: Bubble Blowing

During the month of August, the blistering heat of summer is upon us in Austin, TX, leaving some of us stuck inside, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find some creative ways to have fun! Bubble blowing is a fun indoor or outdoor activity, and children of all ages love blowing bubbles. Bubbles are also an excellent tool to promote speech and language development.

Read More

Playing With Purpose: Outdoor Play

I am going to make a bold statement. Play is ESSENTIAL to the growth and development of your child. From a young age, play is your child’s occupation. Play promotes creativity and problem-solving, develops resilience and grit, and builds social and cognitive skills including, speech and language development. When you engage in outdoor play with your kids, you foster growth, development, and exposure to a multitude of new experiences.

Read More

Playing With Purpose: Books

My inspiration for this week’s blog post came when I was shopping at Target and found great books in their Dollar Spot. They are adaptations of popular children’s stories. Each book comes with a variety of felt characters and items related to the story. The felt books are interactive and provide many opportunities for language stimulation. Looks how cute they are!

Read More

Playing With Purpose: Mr. Potato Head

Mr. Potato Head is my all time favorite toy to use with preschoolers which is why I have chosen it for my first post in a series called Playing With Purpose (PWP). The PWP series will highlight a specific toy or activity you can use to build language skills during play. Each post will be filled with hands-on ideas, step-by-step directions, and concepts you can address during play time with your child.

Read More

Increasing Communication in Toddlers Using Prelinguistic Milieu Teaching

There are a number of methods and techniques for working with toddlers who don’t yet communicate effectively with others.  When we think about these methods, we often group them into two larger categories: indirect and direct. Indirect, or input-based, methods rely on adults providing lots of rich language in a child’s environment; with these methods, however, we don’t require children to do anything in the moment. There is considerable evidence to support these input-based methods, especially for late-talkers and toddlers and preschoolers who struggle with the grammatical aspects of language. Despite the effectiveness of input-based methods in some situations, there are times when these indirect methods of language facilitation aren’t all that are needed.  In these cases, we might choose to use a more direct method of helping a child to communicate.  Direct methods involve expecting a child to do something – to use a gesture, or a word, for example – right in the moment when we are teaching them. This is where prelinguistic milieu teaching enters the picture.

Read More

The Use of Recasts with Toddlers and Preschoolers

Within the wide range of techniques we SLPs carry in our speech-language toolboxes, the use of recasts is one we pull out frequently.  In fact, it’s a tool that many SLPs, parents, and teachers often use intuitively and with ease when interacting with young children.  But how valuable, exactly, is the use of recasting? What research guides the use of this technique in practice? And when do we need to use something more than recasts to help language grow? Recent research provides some clues to help us to answer these questions.

Read More