Speech and language development of toddlers

Ages 1-3 years

*Content supplied by raisingchildren.net.au.

Speech is the ability to produce the sounds that form words. Language is the words that your child understands and uses as well as how he uses them.

Stages of speech and language development

By 12-18 months, children often say their first words with meaning. For example, your child saying ‘Dada’, when he’s calling for his dad.

In his second year, your toddler’s vocabulary continues to grow and he’ll start to put two words together into short ‘sentences’.

In his third year, your child will be learning to speak in longer, more complex sentences. He might play and talk at the same time.

Understanding and language development

At around 12 months, your child will understand the names of common objects like ‘cup’ or ‘hat’ and body parts like ‘tummy’.

At around 18 months, your child will refer to themselves by name. A few months later, they’ll begin to understand and use ‘I’ to refer to themselves. This is when they start to realise they are a separate person with their own ideas.

In their second year, your child will understand:

  • some familiar phrases like ‘Give me a kiss’
  • simple instructions like ‘Stop that’
  • very, very simple explanations.

In their third year, your child will begin to understand one-step and two-step instructions, as long as they’re about things he already knows – for example, ‘Pick up your toys and put them in the box’.

He’ll begin to answer questions from adults about ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘where’, but might not yet understand how to answer ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.


Your toddler will use a range of speech sounds, but it’s normal for them to pronounce words differently from the way adults say them. For example, he might say ‘tar’ instead of ‘car’, or he might leave off the ends of words altogether, like ‘ca’ instead of ‘cat’. Older toddlers might still have difficulty with sounds like ‘z’, ‘sh’, ‘f’, ‘v’, ‘r’, and ‘th’.

There’s no need to correct your toddler every time he makes a mistake – this can be frustrating for everyone. Instead, gentle reminders can help your child pronounce words the right way. For example, if your child says, ‘I saw the tat’, you could reply, ‘Where was the cat? What was the cat doing?’ This involves repeating the missing or different sound – ‘cat’ – with a slight emphasis.

Ideas to help your toddler’s speech and language development

The more words you expose your child to, the more words he’ll learn. Here are some ideas to encourage toddler talking:

  • Read with your child.
  • Respond to and talk about your child’s interests. For example, if your child is pretending to drive a car, ask them where they're going.
  • Recite nursery rhymes and sing songs. Play rhymes, stories and songs in the car.
  • Build on basic words – for example, when your toddler says ‘train’, you can say, ‘Yes, it’s a big red train’.
  • When your child is ‘talking’, show that you’re listening by smiling and looking at them. Also praise your child’s efforts to talk.
  • Leave time after you talk to give your child a chance to reply. He might not always have the right words, but he’ll still try to respond. This helps them learn about conversation.
  • Point to and name body parts, or make it into a game – for example, ‘Where is your mouth?’

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