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Choose Your Words Wisely: Tips to Help Your Child Combine Words

Do you remember hearing your child’s first word? What a wonderful milestone! And as your child says more and more you start to feel a deeper connection with them. After all it is exciting to get a glimpse into what they know, what they think, what they are interested in, and what they want.

But what happens as they reach closer to 18-24 months, and you are not hearing any two-word combinations yet? Should you worry or be concerned?

Typically, children will not start to combine words until they have an expressive vocabulary of about 30-50 words. But the type of words also matters. For example, if your little one’s vocabulary is predominately made up of labels for objects, chances are they will not put 2-words together. After all, if they said, “apple car” is not going to make a lot of sense.

So, words matter! And, not just words, but word types. Children need words from a variety of categories, including labels for objects (nouns), descriptive words (adjectives), and action words (verbs) to start building phrases.

In this post, I will provide you with some simple ideas that will have your little one chattering up a storm in no time!

Take an Inventory

The easiest way to better understand where your child’s vocabulary strengths and weakness lie is to conduct an inventory of all the words that you child says. There are a few different ways to do this. You can use an informal check list such as one provided by Speech & Language At Home (First Words Checklist Free Printable — Speech and Language at Home), or you can create your own.

To create your own, you can start by simply making a list of all the words that your child says spontaneously. This means words that say on their own, and not after your model the word for them.

Organize Your Word List

Once you have complied your list, you can compile those words into categories. More specifically you can organize those words by word types, using the example below:

Labels Actions Descriptors Locations Pronouns

ball go big in me

dog wash hot up

bubble open





Create Word Maps

Now that you have your child’s word inventory and have organized their words into distinct categories you can clearly see where your child’s vocabulary strengths and needs might be. While it is typical to have more nouns or labels for things versus other vocabulary types, it can become limited if they have few or no other type of vocabulary words. We need other word types to construct phrases and later sentences as it is not going to make a lot of sense if your little one starts to string a bunch of nouns together, such as “dog bubble.”

This is where word maps come in. Essentially word maps not only provide ideas for target words, but they also help to identify existing vocabulary that could be combined to create phrases. You can download a sample word map here:

target word list
Download PDF • 21KB

For example, if we look at the words listed above it is clear that the child has more labels or nouns than other language types. Additionally, we can see some words that can work well together. Using this information, you can create a word map to target key phrases.

“Big ball”

“Open book"

“Go bubbles”

“Bubble up”

“Ball in”

Select Target Words

When your child has stand-alone words, or words that do not easily combine with other words already existing in their vocabulary they can become words that you can target in books, play and everyday routines.

If you refer to the example above, you will notice that there are not really any words that pair easily with “moo”, “hot” or “me”.

Going back to the word map, you can add words under the various categories that will help to expand on the vocabulary and phrases that your child uses. For example, you could teach the label “cow”. Once your little one can label a picture of cow, or a toy cow, you can work on the phrase, “moo cow.”

Teach Target Words

Let the fun begin! Now that you have your target words in mind it is time to teach them, and teaching should be fun. Here are a few tips to teach target words:

  • Provide your child with many opportunities to hear the target word in many opportunities throughout the day. For example, if you were teaching the word “up” you can model the word when walking up the stairs, when picking your child up, when blowing bubbles up or when pointing out an airline that is up in the sky.

  • Pair an action or gesture with your target word.

  • When embedding the target word into a sentence, emphasize the word by adding stress.

  • Read books that contain the target word.

  • Play with toys that lend themselves to modeling the target word during play.

  • Repeat, repeat and repeat some more! Children learn through repetition.

I would love to hear from you!

Which strategy from today’s post are you planning on trying first? Did I miss a strategy that has worked for you? Let me know in the comments below.


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