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Developing Early Vocabulary in 0-3 Year Olds

Posted November 07, 2016

Finding Dora and Disability by Ridge Zeller Therapy

Ridge Zeller Therapy's, Kate Matley M.S., CCC-SLP, shares helpful tips for developing early vocabulary in infant to three year old children: 

Developing Early Vocabulary in 0-3 Year Olds

Recently, I was asked a question by one of my best friends.

Ten months ago she gave birth to a beautiful little girl. This little darling had a mind of her own and was born premature. After spending two months in the NICU, Marlee finally got to come home.

Marlee was screened for language delay. She is about to have her comprehensive speech and language evaluation, and her mama wants to do everything she can at home to facilitate language development.

Her question? “What does therapy look like for a ten month old!?!?”

Since this post is intended to be parent/caregiver friendly, I’m going to answer the question she’s really asking: “What am I supposed to do???”

Although Caitlyn is a special educator and no stranger to understanding developmental milestones. It made me wonder how many parents have the same concerns.

Here is the four-step Home Program to Boost Baby’s Language Skills

Gaining Attention

Step One: Gain Baby’s Attention- You probably already do this wonderfully. I want baby looking at my face 80% of the time I am modelling language. I usually accomplish this with wide eyes, funny faces, tickling games, etc. Some of my favorite activities for gaining attention include using bubbles, wind-up toys and blowing up balloons. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Less is More

Step Two: Say More With Less- The following 25 words make up a whopping 96.3% of what toddlers say! Print this list and put it where you see it everyday. Use these words intentionally when talking/playing/bathing/changing/feeding/etc with baby.
























All done


For pre-verbal children: A child's first eight words are typically: what, mine, help, stop, more, that, all done, and want. These are eight powerful words! When you engage in ‘baby talk’ focus on these words. You’ll notice I intentionally left out nouns such as “mama” and “dada”. This is because nouns get WAY too much attention for how little use we get out of them. Aside from labeling and requesting, they are overrated when teaching FUNCTIONAL vocabulary. What do I mean by functional? I’m talking about what the word DOES for the speaker. It is the purpose of the communication. More on this in step three.

Focus on Function

Step Three: Learn the Functions of Early Vocabulary

Again, the function of the word is the purpose of a communication. This table shows examples of 15 different functions/purposes using only the 25 words from step two.

Word Function



go away

request objects and activities

want that, do that, do again, put here, read it

request assistance

help me, you help

request information

who that, what that, when go, where go

request recurrence

more, more that, again, do again


that here


mine, your, that mine


no, none








bad, good

direct actions and events

get, give


mama, dada


it pretty


I bet you didn’t realize 25 words could give you so much bang for your buck! The thing is, words are really powerful.

One note on grammar:  Your child will hear you use correct grammar plenty and once they start putting two to three words together, you will focus more on modeling good grammar than correcting grammar mistakes.

Rely on Routines

Step Four: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. Research tells us that children need to hear a word many times in a short period of time before being able to comprehend or use it. 

That is a lot of repetition. Ain’t nobody got time for that… Which leads me to my next tip!

Use Existing Routines to “Schedule” Opportunities for Modeling

Early learners learn best when interactions are predictable and repeated regularly. You don’t need to talk at your child all day bombarding them with words to be effective. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend anything that isn’t enjoyable for both you and your baby. Focus on talking to your child during moments that have rich context. This includes your daily routines. I bet you have at least five daily routines that will make perfect opportunities for language modelling. Here are just a few:

Bathtime: My personal favorite. Talk, talk, talk about what is happening. You are the narrator and the star of this event. You don’t even need a toy. A small cup (for pouring water) and a washcloth make the perfect therapy tools. Take the washcloth and touch babies toes (e.g. “This one and this one and this one, etc..”). Put the cloth in baby’s hand and help her ‘wash herself’ and take turns (e.g. “you do” and “I do”). There are so many possibilities. You are only limited by your creativity. Words to work on, just to name a few, include:

  • more
  • here
  • hot
  • cold
  • fun
  • you do
  • me do
  • mine
  • up
  • down
  • there
  • that

Reading a Book: You already know those cute little board books are super important in developing pre-literacy skills. Use this opportunity to work on words such as: this, that, turn, go, stop, all done, more, again, open, close, read, look, like, what.

Meals and Snack Times: Possible words could be more, again, you, eat, drink, give, have, put it here, I do it, I need help, you help, that, want that, more that, not that, not more, hot, cold, bad, good.

Rough and Tumble Play: Many dads love tossing their babies in the air and are not at all anxious (unlike myself) that baby may fall or be injured in some way. Tickling is another favorite among the fathers I know. This is a perfect opportunity for them to include words such as more, again, stop, go, fast, slow, up, down, all done, fun.

By the way, I am NOT recommending baby tossing, but if you’re going to do it anyway… make it a language rich experience. ☺

Comments (1 Comment)

It was fascinating to think how simple the interactions can be with our children, but that if parents act intentionally a lot of language develop can take place. Thanks for encouraging fathers to take an active role in the process. I imagine that human intimacy (facial expression, touch, sweet voice) add to a child’s learning experience.

Posted by Susan King on December 22, 2016

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