Toddler Language milestones, you wouldn’t think of

Skills to help your toddler become a better communicator

By Kyla Ettinger, SLP and Founder of the SpeakEasy: Home Speech Therapy app

Most parents get really excited about hearing their child’s first words – and rightly so, it’s an important milestone, and a sign that your child is learning how to communicate! But those first words are just one tiny part of the language your child is learning. As you move into the toddler years, your child’s communication will continue to get more interesting and effective. There are lots of equally exciting milestones during this time that you might not know to look for!

So you have a child who is beginning to understand the world around them, and who can get their basic wants and needs met with words…now what? Here are three interesting language areas to pay attention to in your toddler:

3 toddler language milestones graphic

1. Asking and Answering Questions

The ability to first answer, and later ask questions will significantly improve your child’s communication and social skills – children use questions to learn about their interests, and to participate more in conversation.

What questions should my child be able to answer?

  1. By 2 years old: Answers yes/no, “where” and “what” questions, with gestures or words
  2. By 3 years old: Answers “where”, “what”, “what-doing”, and “who” questions with words
  3. By 4 years old: Answers “why”, “how” and more complex “who” and “where” questions logically, answers function questions such as “what do we use a fork for?”

What questions should my child be able to ask?

  1. By 2 years old: Asks “what’s that?” (this might sound simpler at first, like “Da?” with rising voice intonation)
  2. By 3 years old: Asks “where”, “what” and “what ___ doing” in simple format (eg. “where daddy?”), asks single-word “why”
  3. By 4 years old: Asks “why”, “what”, “where”, “when” , “how”, and “whose” with correct grammar 

*Modified from the LinguiSystems Guide to Communication Milestones, © 2008 LinguiSystems, Inc. 

toddler speech milestones for answering questions

How can I help my child ask and answer questions?

  • Ask and then answer your own question. This models both the grammar of how to put words together to form a question AND what a correct answer might sound like. By modeling both sides, you take the pressure off of your child if they aren’t ready to answer yet. Over time, pause longer between your question and your answer, to give your child a chance to chime in if they are ready.
  • Use gestures or signs. In our house we use the ASL signs for who and where whenever these words come up. Feel free to use a sign from your local sign language, or invent your own consistent gesture if that works better for your family. Using a visual in combination with the word will help your child learn the concept more quickly.
  • Read. Reading is one of the best ways to practice asking and answering questions, because the pictures are a built in way to help with understanding. As you read some words and comment on what you see in the pictures, try: “What’s this?” “Where is the ___?” “Who is ___ing?”, or “What is ____ doing?” Follow up by pointing to pictures or starting the answer for your child, to help them feel comfortable participating while they are still learning the concept.

2. Categorizing Items

Learning how objects relate to each other is an important way that children advance their vocabulary. By first understanding and then being able to explain how items are alike or different, and items in their world work together, your child will be able to use these categories to learn and remember new vocabulary. Knowing about categories also helps children learn to describe items in more detail, making their sentences more complex (think “the red, crunchy apple is a fruit” vs. just “apple”).

What should my child know about categorizing items?

  • By 2-3 years old: Uses basic descriptive words like big/little, soft/hard, fast/slow (this is an early way to start assigning objects to “groups”)
  • By 3-4 years old: Groups like objects together, such as their clothes, animals, or toys. (they may not be able to name them all yet, but understand the concept of what goes together); Names the function of items such as “I eat with a fork” or “The car drives.”
  • By 4-5 years old: Lists items that go together in a category, such as “fruits”, “animals”, “things that go.”

How can I help my child advance their vocabulary?

  • Introduce the concept of categories well before 3 years old. While looking at books or pictures, or playing with toys, point to and name items that go together: “Apple, banana, strawberry. Those are all fruits.”
  • With your toddler, talk about the functions of items during your daily routines: “We put shoes on our feet to protect them.” You can get playful about this and see if your child notices when an item is “missing” during a routine: “We’re ready to eat…wait a minute, what’s missing? We need something to put our food on…We need…plates.”
  • Check out the SpeakEasy app. We have a full set of activity suggestions on helping your child learn to categorize, plus lots of other ways to advance their vocabulary!
language milestones for toddlers categorizing items

3. Phonological Awareness

These are pre-reading skills, but I’m not saying that your child is ready to read yet – quite the opposite! Phonological awareness really deserves its own post to get into all the fun details, but I’ll just give you a basic overview here. Well before your child is ready to read, they should be building skills that help them to understand how to “play” with sounds. Skills like rhyming, breaking words into syllables, or identifying the first sound in a word help your child learn how we manipulate sounds to build words. To clarify, phonological awareness never involves reading words on a page, but instead listening to words. 

What should my child know about phonological awareness?

  1. By 2-2 1/2 years old: Shows emerging awareness of rhymes and may show a preference for listening to them in books and songs.
  2. By 3 years old: Makes basic rhymes (cat, bat, hat)
  3. By 4 years old: Claps syllables in words (e.g. but-ter-fly gets three claps)
  4. By 5 years old: Recognizes when words have the same starting sound (e.g. “cat”, “cape”, “kick”); Segments (e.g. says “k”- “ah” – “t” in response to “tell me the sounds in “cat”) and blends (says “cat” in response to “what word do the sounds k + ah + t make?”) short words
phonological awareness milestones for toddler language development

How can I help my child improve their phonological awareness?

  • Rhyme. Pick books and songs with rhyming words (there are TONS of these in children’s literature). The more you model these and say them in rhythm, the easier it will be for your child to pick up.
  • Clap. Clap out the syllables in words – make a game out of finding objects and counting how many “claps” they have (e.g. “tree” gets one clap, “ta-ble” gets two claps, “re-fri-ger-a-tor” gets five claps). Children also like to try this with their own name. 
  • Talk about sounds, not letters. Letter recognition will come later! Play with the sounds that begin simple words. Instead of saying, “cat starts with C”, try “K-K…Cat. Cat starts with the ‘K’ sound.” Then, see if you can find other words in the house that also start with “K” (cake, cap, computer etc.).

The toddler years are full of fun language discovery. Hopefully this gives you a few new ideas about what to look for in your little communicator and how to help them succeed!

For more speech and language tips, check out SpeakEasy Community’s blog posts on pronoun development and speech sound milestones.