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How to support toddlers' language development and growing vocabulary.

During this stage your toddler’s language development will make noticeable progress. They are both increasing what they understand (receptive language) and what they can say (expressive language). Their understanding will move from mainly naming words like ‘cat’, ‘ball’ and ‘inu’, to some verbs like ‘jump’, ‘noho’ and ‘oma’, and then some adjectives like ‘nui’, ‘little’ and ‘red’. They will understand many commonly used phrases too, like ‘Homai te kihi’, ‘Sit down’ and ‘That’s hot’.

An expressive vocabulary

Before they begin to combine words, children need an expressive vocabulary of at least 35 to 50 words. These need to be words they use on their own rather than imitating words from the whānau. Here are some examples of combinations they might use: ‘daddy shoe’, ‘dog go’ and ‘pōtae upoko’.

Plurals or joining words like ‘the’ or ‘is’ will be missing in these two-word sentences. The initial combinations are likely to be mainly nouns and some verbs (‘cat drink’ and ‘truck go’). These two-word combinations may also come with gestures – for example, ‘mum come’ with a beckoning hand.

During this stage parents may hear more types of speech. Their toddler’s language shows they understand:

  • social norms, by saying ‘bye bye’ or ‘kia ora’
  • asking words, using questions or requests such as such as ‘please’ and ‘more?’
  • action words like ‘drink’, ‘moe’, ‘jump’ and ‘push’
  • pronouns, that can take the place of a noun, such as ‘you’, ‘ahau’, ‘he’ and ‘mine’ – especially mine!
  • prepositions related to where things are, such as ‘up’, ‘roto’, ‘out’, ‘runga’ and ‘here’
  • negatives like ‘kao’, ‘no’, and then later, ‘don’t’ and ‘can’t’
  • adjectives (describing words) like ‘big’, ‘makariri’, ‘little’ and ‘hot’
  • adverbs such as ‘fast’ and ‘slow’.

When parents respond to their toddler’s word combinations like ‘ice bock yum’ by using fuller sentences (‘you like that red ice block don’t you’) they are modelling how words can be combined even more. This is called stretch talk. When children use made up words like ‘Dad goed rugby’, rather than correcting them, whānau can encourage their learning by responding with the right version — ‘yes Dad’s gone to rugby training’.

Supporting language development

Here are some other ways parents and whānau can help their toddler’s language development.

  • Notice what they’re interested in and talk about it with them.
  • Respond to their one-word requests like ‘juice’ with ‘You’d like a drink of juice?’
  • Sing songs and rhymes with them until they can sing them on their own.
  • Give them time to respond and try not to finish their attempts for them.
  • Read to them regularly from the books they want.
  • Teach them the names of their body parts.
  • Play animal sound games with them.
  • Give them choices, such as ‘Blue shoes or red jandals?’
  • Try repeating instructions in a different way to help their understanding.
  • Think about ‘tone of voice’. Is it questioning or affirming?

Other resources

Communication development by 2 years | KidsHealth(external link)

Developing early speech and language skills | SpeechMatters(external link)

Speech sound development | KidsHealth (external link)

Tips on learning to talk – From 15 to 18 months | Zero to Three(external link)

Toddler language development | Boys Town Pediatrics (YouTube)(external link)

Toddler talking milestones | PBS for parents(external link)

Communication: one to two years | Whānau Āwhina Plunket (external link)