Is your toddler talking but not as much as their cousin or neighbor? Are you concerned because your two-year-old is not combining words and the doctor said they should be able to by this age?
Have no fear because this article tackles how to help your child speak in two-word combinations. Language development is complex, yet it is absolutely something that you have the power to really help them with.
At what age do toddlers put two words together?
Your toddler should be able to combine words between 18 and 24 months. This is only possible if they have a solid number of words they are already saying on their own. Between 18 and 24 months, your child should have at least 50 words, and from ages 2 to 3, they should have around 200 words. (Check out this article from Stanford Children’s Health for more information.) Once your child has a lot of single words, they can start to combine them to make two-word phrases.
If your child does not have a strong vocabulary of single words, you need to focus on that before worrying about whether or not they combine words.
Related Article: How to Help My Late Talker
Why is my toddler not combining words?
There are several reasons that your child may not be putting words together. As I mentioned above, the biggest reason children don’t put two words together is that they don’t have a large enough vocabulary.
Another reason your toddler might not be ready to combine words yet is that they don’t have the right vocabulary. For many babies and toddlers, lots of their first words are nouns (people, places, or things mostly). Children learn words for the foods they like, the people they know, toys they prefer, and more. But in order to combine words, children need to have other types of words too.
Your child might not be motivated to combine words if they do not see any reason to try it. This one sounds funny, but if your child gets everything they want without using their words, or by just saying one word, they might not see a need to combine words. As parents, we know our kids so well that sometimes we anticipate their needs and don’t have them use their words.
It’s really important to help your child expand their vocabulary by helping them add new words and then giving them a chance to say the words together.
How do I teach my toddler to combine words?
Teach More Words
If your child is not talking very much in general, you first have to help them learn new words. Please don’t use flashcards for this. Just play with them, read to them, talk back and forth with them.
Related Article: If you want specific tips on how to help your child learn more words, check out my article here.
Basically, the idea is that if they have more words, then they have more ways to combine them. Most children need to be using about 50 words before they combine them.
Teach A Wider Variety of Words
When we first teach babies words, we focus a lot on nouns (words that refer to people, place, things, or ideas). We want them to say “mama”, “dada”, the dog’s name, food types, etc. But if you only ever teach your child nouns, then it will take longer before they learn to combine words.
Instead, focus on using a variety of word types. Use adjectives (describing words) like naming the color of something, or using words like “big” and “small”.
Helping your child learn their colors is a great skill that is helpful in lots of ways, including saying more short phrases. (If you want more information on how to teach your child their colors, check out my article here.)
Other great adjectives to teach are concepts like “fast” and “slow”, “big” and “little”. This will help your child learn new concepts and expand their phrases!
Then, if your child asks for a spoon, they can say “blue spoon”. Or if they want one of the balls, they can ask for the “big ball”.
Another word that is great to teach your child is “more”. This is a super helpful word that kids can use in lots of ways and get what they want more easily. If they are loving their delicious snack of cheerios, they can say “more cheerios” and get exactly what they want!
Be sure to also teach verbs (action words). Use verbs as your child is doing something, simply by labeling their actions for them. If your child is eating, walking, talking, laughing or whatever, say that word out loud.
Action words that you should target first should be something you do with your baby every day. You could work on the word “drink” or “eat” around mealtime. You could help them learn the words “dance”, “bounce” and “go” when you are playing with your toddler. By adding verbs, they will be more likely to combine words into two-word phrases.
Use prepositions (position words) as you play with your child. Start simple with words like “in” and “out” when they are playing with toys that go in a box. You can also use words like “behind”, “next to”, and “on”. All of these words are functional as you give your child directions and will be helpful for them to be able to understand and say.
Model Two Word Phrases
Try to use two-word phrases so that they are easier for your child to copy. Model using simple, two-word phrases that will be easier for your child to copy. Simplify what you are saying so that your child can imitate you.
Using two-word phrases has two main benefits.
The first benefit is that your toddler will be able to understand what you are talking about more easily because using shorter phrases makes it easier for them to comprehend what you are saying.
Sometimes toddlers that are a little behind in talking have a hard time because they aren’t understanding what we are saying to them. If you are always talking in long sentences and paragraphs, it might be holding back your little one both in their receptive and expressive language.
Related Article: Receptive Language vs. Expressive Language
The second benefit is that it will make it easier for them to copy. By only using two words, your child is more likely to copy those two words. By saying few words and repeating the same phrases, your child is more likely to combine words.
Use the “Plus One Word” Approach
This is a very simple approach that is also very effective.
When your child says one word on their own, add just one more word that fits. If your child says “go” when playing with a car, you can say “car go”. In another example, your child might say “apple” because they want another bite of apple. You would respond by saying, “more apple”.
This approach gives them a very simple, concrete way to start putting two words together. They might imitate you right away and say the two-word phrase, but more often they will need to hear it said multiple times before they say it on their own.
Speak in Short Phrases
Vary your sentence length as you talk to your child. While it’s good to model full sentences and even paragraphs sometimes, your child will also benefit from hearing you speak in one or two-word phrases.
When you are playing with your child, talk about how you are playing, but use short phrases. Instead of saying, “Wow the car is going so fast. I am going to put my car up here and make it go down. I like how my car is yellow…” try one or two words at a time. You can get the same ideas across but in shorter two-word phrases like these: “car go”, “fast car”, “car up”, “car down”, “yellow car”.
By giving them words in smaller chunks, it will be much easier for them to repeat what you are saying. They won’t all of a sudden be able to go from one-word phrases to paragraphs, so help them grow their language by keeping it simple when you talk.
Give Extra Time for Your Child to Respond
Sometimes we just need to give our child more time and space to say something. If we are too quick to speak for them or move on, they will have a harder time talking.
When you talk to your child, act like they are going to respond. When you are playing. say something to them and then wait for them to reply. Look at them and give an expectant glance to help them know you want them to talk. They will not always respond, but the time and space are there for them to try.
Praise All Efforts
A big part of working on new skills for children (including working on two-word phrases) is praise for the effort. Doing something new that might be especially hard for your toddler deserves some positive feedback.
I always think about how hard it would be if someone was always trying to make me do something that was really hard (for me that would be going somewhere without GoogleMaps). I would get super annoyed and want to give up! But just like a toddler, if someone was in my corner, cheering me on I would be able to tolerate the difficulty a little easier.
So think about how two-word combinations might be easy for you, but that it is seriously hard work for a toddler that isn’t doing it yet. Give them a break and cheer them on.
You might give a high-five or say “Wow! Good job using your words!” coupled with a big smile. Let them know that you see their efforts.
Also, make sure you praise them, even if they don’t get it with complete accuracy. So if your child says “car o” instead of “car go” acknowledge and give them credit for saying a two word phrase. It doesn’t have to be the correct sounds for it to be a two word phrase. But if your child is having a hard time speaking clearly, there is help for that, too!
Related Article: Is Your Child Not Talking Clearly?
What are some activities I can do with my child to help them with two-word phrases?
Honestly, you can make just about any activity into one that will help a child form a two-word phrase.
Common Two Word Phrases During Meal Time
Mealtime can be a great chance to work on your child’s ability to combine words. But be careful to not get your child overly frustrated when they are eating, which could make them want to skip eating altogether!
If your toddler is up for it, model two-word phrases like “more _______” (fill in any food or drink). You can also use “all done”, “too hot”, “too cold”, “blue plate” (or whatever color of plate they are using), “want _______”, or “milk please” (again, fill it in with whatever food or drink they want).
Use all of these while you are eating together, and use some of the methods above to help your child say them too!
Combining Words at Bathtime
Bathtime is another great place to work on helping your toddler combine words. If your child likes bath, this is a great place to learn new words and even start on some two-word phrases. But if your child is going through a phase where they really don’t enjoy bath, don’t add to the stress by having them work on talking.
Assuming your little one does enjoy the bath, try using two-word phrases when you are playing with bubbles like “more bubbles” , “blow bubbles”, “pop bubbles”, “big bubble” or “small bubble”.
If you are playing with bath toys, say the name of the toy and combine it with the color (“yellow ducky”) or the name of the toy and an action (“fish swims”).
While you are washing them up, say “wash arm”, “wash leg” and so on as you wash their whole body. (This works on two-word phrases and body parts! That’s a double win!)
Two Word Phrases and Play
There are SO MANY ways you can use two-word phrases during play. Check out this list of two-word phrases for toddlers that you can use all throughout play:
- toys combined with their color: “red ball”, “blue car”, “pink purse”
- comparing sizes: “big book”, “small block”, “long slide” “short baby”
- using action words: “car go”, “bunny hop”, “open book”, “close box”
- describing place: “dolly under”, “block in”, “cup on”
As you play, just think about incorporating these two-word phrases, or something similar. There is no magic to what activity you do to get two-word phrases. You just play with your little one and use the strategies listed above.
Just remember, your toddler probably isn’t going to master a whole list of two-word phrases overnight! They might take days, weeks, or even a few months before they combine words consistently. Just keep trying and be patient.
However, if you feel your child really is behind, and no progress is being made, get them evaluated for speech and language therapy! It will likely make a huge difference!
Related Article: Does My Child Need Speech Therapy?