Supporting toddlers' developing listening, understanding, talking and communicating skills.

Hearing and understanding

Receptive language is what children can hear and understand. Toddlers can understand more language than they can use. To understand what is being said to them, a child must be able to listen well. Listening is a skill that develops with practice, and is a key part of social relationships.

Children need to be able to listen so they can learn about their world and get information from other people, especially their parents. It’s also important that a child can understand instructions. This starts with simple things during toddlerhood, progresses constantly, and is linked to success in school later on.

Toddlers are usually very keen to be part of whānau activities so there’s great motivation to listen and understand what’s going on. However, sometimes they’re concentrating so hard on what they’re doing at the time, they may need some help with listening.

During this time children begin to understand the meanings of a lot more words. Research tells us that children benefit greatly from experiencing a rich verbal environment. The more words a child hears, the greater their language learning capacity will be.

One of the best ways to assist a child’s receptive language development is to talk to them. Talk about everything that’s going on around them, what you're doing, what they’re doing, and what the neighbour’s dog is doing! Singing and reading are also very helpful ways to support their developing communication skills.

Receptive language is closely tied to a child’s thinking skills. Under the age of 3 it’s difficult to separate these two things.

Toddlers can:

  • recognise familiar people and objects by name – for example, ‘Here comes Daddy’ and ‘Where’s that cat?’
  • understand simple statements, such as ‘kai time’ and ‘time for bed’
  • understand simple requests, such as ‘Ta for Mum?’ and ‘Wave to
  • relate two things together – ‘Put the spoon in the cup’
  • identify people, some body parts, and some familiar objects or toys.

Communicating and talking

Expressive language is about what children can communicate. This includes sounds, gestures, words, and short sentences. Children learn the meaning of words by using language.

Toddlers learn language best in one-to-one interactions. Communication supports the relationship between a toddler and adults. When they receive a positive response from adults it builds a positive sense of self, and confidence to communicate more.

Talking involves:

  • watching
  • two-way games and conversation
  • music and singing
  • asking questions
  • making mistakes
  • adults talking about what’s happening
  • having fun together.

Toddlers can:

  • use phrases such as ‘All gone milk’
  • say ‘no’
  • nod and shake their head to yes/no questions
  • shorten sentences such as ‘Want kai’ and ‘Daddy come play’
  • say the names of people, some body parts, and some familiar objects or toys.

What else can parents and whānau do to help a child with their language development?

  • Notice what a child is paying attention to, and comment on it.
  • Listen carefully to their attempts to communicate.
  • Don’t rush them — allow them time to find the words or make the sounds.
  • Provide opportunities to be with other children and adults.
  • Play silly games.
  • Read books and tell stories.
  • Laugh and have fun together.