Every parent wants to give their toddler a head start on speaking, and experts suggest it's easier than most people think.

"You don't have to spend a bundle on DVDs or flashcards," says speech-language pathologist Amy Nelson. "Language acquisition is birthed through face-to-face interactions, and by engaging your child in everyday activities and experiences."

The following are ten simple suggestions on how to build your toddler's vocabulary.

  1. Associate through reading "Create an interactive experience by making books come alive for your child," says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., educator and three-time author on this subject. "When you are reading together, pick up on your child's interests and relate the content of the book to his life. If there's a picture of a dog say, 'That's like Grandma's dog. Where else have you seen a dog?,' so he links what he sees in the book to his own experiences."

  2. Incorporate core vocabulary "Choose books that have bright colors, simple pictures and short phrases or sentences that use core vocabulary-nouns such as, animals, toys and food," says Nelson. "Give your child an opportunity to label and repeat words. Also, use what speech-language pathologists call 'Expansion.' If your child says, 'Cat,' you say, 'Big cat,' or 'Sleeping cat' by adding an adjective or verb to increase his length of utterance."

  3. Encourage repetition "Children often have a favorite book they want to hear time and again, and that's OK," says Golinkoff. "Repeated readings build a toddler's vocabulary and story structure understanding."

    Amy Vitsorek found this to be true. "Right now [my 2 ½ year old] Maggie is into princesses, so every day she carries around a suitcase that has four princess books in it. She's memorized the storyline and tells it in her own words by looking at the pictures. Then she'll ask me to read it to her," she says.

  4. Visit venues "Take trips to venues that have programs specifically designed for children," says Nelson. "Children's museums have a variety of exhibits, so toddlers can learn words about opposites, such as wet and dry, big and little, and up and down. If you go to other sites such as natural history or art museums, scale it down to your child's level. Focus on basic vocabulary and point out the animals, flowers, shapes and colors you see."

    "Last year when we took Conner to the zoo, I pointed out different animals such as an elephant and talked about its big ears and long nose," says Danielle Jackson of her now 22 month old. "Later if we saw an animal on TV or in a book, I'd remind him of our trip and encourage him to say its name and make the animal sound."

  5. Out and about "Everyday outings provide opportunities to talk about what you see at the supermarket, pharmacy, park and doctor's office," says Golinkoff. "When you take walks, point out different things and bring back leaves, rocks and sticks so you and your child can count, sort and explore more. When he goes to the pediatrician for a checkup, trace around his body on the table paper, then take it home and help him label his body parts."

  6. Sing songs "Interactive songs and rhymes that incorporate movement with melodic or rhythmic patterns are captivating for children and encourage vocabulary expansion," says Vitsorek, who teaches music to preschoolers. "Ones like 'Head and Shoulders' help them learn body part identification; others such as 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' teach directional concepts."

  7. Tinker with toys "Blocks and simple puzzles offer geometric and spatial language with terms like 'above,' 'below' and 'next to,'" says Golinkoff. "Dress up clothes increase language too. Give your child old clothes and play along with his fantasy."

    "Your toddler may not be ready for board games, but you can use the game pieces as manipulatives," says Nelson. "Put checkers into different piles according to colors and count them. Or adapt games such as Barnyard Bingo to work on matching, naming and counting."

  8. Interactive games "I use interactive games such as 'This Little Piggy' and 'Humpty Dumpty' to build Maggie's vocabulary," says Vitsorek. "I'll stop and leave off a word so she can fill it in. When we're driving in the car, we also play 'I Spy' with colors. As a result, she knows all of her colors."

  9. Narrate routines "Encouraging talk during our daily routines has been a great way to expand Conner's vocabulary," says Jackson. "When he's getting dressed I'll say, 'I'm putting on your pants . . . your shirt . . . your shoes.' He's already starting to repeat those words. He'll say, 'Sock?' And I'll say, "Yes, that's your sock.'"

  10. Review and retell "Before going to bed, rehash the day's activities to cement vocabulary your child used during the day," says Golinkoff. "Or encourage him to recount his experiences to another adult with your assistance."


Subject-related resources

  • "Einstein Never Used Flashcards" by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick-Golinkoff.
  • "How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life" by Roberta M. Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek.
  • "Toddler Sing and Sign: Improve Your Child's Vocabulary and Verbal Skills the Fun Way" by Ann Meeker Miller.
  • "Why Play = Learning: A Call for Change" by Roberta M. Golinkoff, Kathryn A. Hirsh-Pasek and Dorothy G. Singer.

Denise Morrison Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and grandmother of four.