Learning Guide 16 – 20 Months
By Olynda Smith
Finding Their Voice
Your toddler keeps growing and is likely very busy. They have their own way of doing things at this age and it can be delightful to step back and observe. They are also working hard to express themselves through language. The items in this box, in addition to supporting other areas of development, are wonderful conversation starters! Below are some ways you can support your child as they learn new words and refine their ability to communicate.
Learning To Communicate
A toddler’s brain synapses are amazingly complex allowing for a child to have an explosion of language. It is possible your child may be beginning this language explosion right now or that their sensitive period for language acquisition is still on the horizon.
In either case, this guide will give you some specific tools to support your little one as they do the awe-inspiring work of understanding what language is, as well as the specifics of the language you speak in your home. It’s a great idea to start practicing these skills now, even if you don’t feel that your child is learning much language yet. So much is happening under the surface! Some children like to try everything out loud, while others learn more quietly. So even if you aren’t hearing many words, your child is likely learning a great deal.
When your child is making sounds, and using gestures they are almost always trying to tell you something - even if it seems like nonsense to you! For example, my daughter once looked at the wall in her room and said “dolphin.” If I hadn’t have had so much early childhood training I might have said, “No darling, that is a wall,” and moved on with our day. But, instead I asked “Dolphin?” “Dolphin,” she insisted. I invited her to show me. She went and touched the wall where a beam of light was making a very dolphin like shape. I laughed and said, “Oh, the light is making a dolphin!” She clapped at my understanding.
You won’t always be able to figure out what they are trying to say, and that could be frustrating for them. Trying to understand and responding, is vital. Try saying, “I”m sorry. I know you want to tell me something, but I don’t understand right now.”
Make It Easier For Your Child
Adults are often surprised to hear preschool Montessori students correctly identify a “rectangular prism” or an “ellipse.” This is not because these children have more math or language smarts than other children. It isn’t even a huge educational mystery. It is simply that the adults around them have always used the correct language for these things.
Very small children have more complex brains for learning language than we do! If we use correct words for things, and expose them to lots of different things, most will learn the names of those things as easily as breathing. If we use “baby” words for things we give our children extra work! If we baby talk to them they have to first learn the word you’ve supplied them, then unlearn it later and learn the correct word. Using a different cadence, or pitch is natural and perhaps even helpful. But keep your words clear and correct if you want your child to learn your language easily.
The Three Parts Of Language Acquisition
There are times when you will want to introduce new vocabulary in a direct way. In these times it is really helpful to know that there are three stages to language acquisition. First, you say the word while showing your child what the word means. Second, your child can point to the thing, or do the action when you supply the word. Third, your child can say the word themselves when you point to the thing, or they can use the word correctly themselves.
When introducing new vocabulary directly, stay with step one for a long time. Use the word over and over while showing your little one that thing. You can have fun with this! For example, if I’m introducing the word “hammer” I might take a toy hammer, after I’ve introduced the word many times, and place it around the house for them to find. Every time the hammer is found I’ll pick it up and say “hammer!”
When you get the sense that your child knows the word, you can give your child the chance to show you. Sit near the hammer and say “hammer!” Wait for several seconds to see if the child will motion toward it in some way. If they don’t, go ahead and show them! If they do, you might invite them to “Put the hammer on your head,” or “Put the hammer in the basket” or other suggestions that give your little one a chance to show you they know the item you are talking about. Only use commands that your child knows!
Once they are consistently showing you the hammer, if they are getting verbal, you might invite them to say the word “hammer.” A gentle, helpful way of doing this is to pick up the hammer and just look at it questioningly. You might even say “This is a…” and give some space as if you are thinking. After a nice long pause, if they don’t supply the word or if they supply the wrong word, simply say “hammer.”
Keep It Simple
Language acquisition is not a race, and your child is learning so much outside of your lessons!
They are absorbing words, inflection, gestures, humor and so much more just in the realm of communication. These little lessons are a small part of helping them acquire language. They can, and SHOULD, be fun for parents and children. Keeping this in mind, make sure to only work on only a few words at a time in this way. If you are getting resistance, stop and try another time!
This Is Not A Test!
It is really important to not “quiz” or “drill” your child. Give them a chance to show you what they know in the gentle way described above. Every child learns differently, and the most organic way for your child to learn is through conversation, reading, singing and narration. Only do these lessons if they are fun for both of you. If we turn these lessons into a test we can inadvertently discourage a child, possibly inhibiting them ability to learn with joy later.