Language skills targets for babies and toddlers: 7. First Words

Apr 15, 2016

Our babies’ first words are undoubtedly one of the most exciting milestones of the early years. We get to hear about what interests our little ones, what they want and what they think, and start to connect in a whole new way. So how do we encourage babies and toddlers to speak? Here are some ideas and resources to get started!

first words pin

Is your baby ready to talk?

First words only come once some important skills are in place. These include:

Social skills

Receptive skills

Expressive skills

For a child whos a late talker make sure to give lots of time to these skills before expecting your little one to speak.

That means playing together and using thoughtful communication to encourage your child’s interest, imitation and early communication through expressions and gestures.

First words from daily life

Most children’s first words will be ones they hear a lot in daily life and are meaningful for them. Take a look at this list of 25 typical first words, compiled by Leslie Rescorla, director of the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College [source]:

first wordsfirst words

Think about the words you can emphasize in daily life. It takes a lot of repetition for a word to be understood and then more repetition before it will be spoken.

Children who struggle with learning language need even more repetition before they will understand and use a word themselves. Try building important words like water or eat into verbal routines, words or sentences that you use consistently in certain situations, e.g. every time you give your little one a drink of water say, ‘Mmmm, water! Drink water!’

Labeling like this is an effective way to teach new words. When labeling I would often bring the object close to my mouth and say the word clearly and with enthusiasm, pause and repeat. So when giving water I’d hold the cup next to my mouth, look my baby in the eye, and say ‘Water… [pause]. Water!’ Then I’d give the cup, and repeat while my baby drank, ‘Mmmmm, water!’ This was really effective for words the little ones found interesting and were motivated to copy.

There’s a chapter on using verbal routines to kick start language in my book: Word Boosting: A practical guide to encouraging your toddler’s language skills, with 365+ easy playtime activities.

Word Boosting book cover


I guess I write this in almost every post, but play really is a wonderful way to learn language! One of the reasons for this is that it builds all those other skills that are the foundation for talking: social attention, listening, understanding and turn-taking. Play is fun, so it’s motivating for kids, and they get to be noisy without pressure: a perfect recipe for language boosting!

Spending time playing with your little one every day can do wonders for language development: it did for us! Keep play fun and verbal. For a child just learning first words go ahead and use single words, repeated many times as you play.

For example, if you’re playing with bubbles, you could spend 30 minutes just saying Bubble! Gone! More? More bubbles! In other words, just three easy to copy words repeated over and over as you play together. Be extra-expressive when saying the words. If your child really is on the cusp of talking then this can be instantly effective!

PinCarsYoung children are most likely to use words for things that interest them, so play the games they love. My oldest son’s first words were bear and car. You can be sure we did a lot of pretend play with his bear, and a lot of car play! For ways to encourage first words with car play, check out this post.

The Word Boosting book includes hundreds of ideas for play activities together with suggestions for early words and language skills to target, so please do take a look at that for more inspiration!

First words will come slowly and steadily. Language usually booms after the first 50 or so words are established, at which point a child starts combining words and picking up new words much faster. In this initial stage celebrate every new achievement!

Check out the rest of the language targets series here. Next up will be a whole post on one extra-special first word, the one every mother wants to hear: Mama!

This post contains ideas adapted from my book. Take a look at it for effective strategies to get your little one talking, and hundreds of fun playtime activities to share.

first words square

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to take a look at these:


Language boosting play


This post is shared at Sharing Saturday, A Little Bird Told Me, Brilliant Blog Posts and Practical Mondays.

1 Comment

  1. swapna
    April 19, 2016

    Interesting tips! Thanks for sharing at the Practical Mondays 🙂


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