Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Listening (13 – 24 Months) – Developing More Understanding of Wordsclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

Twelve- to twenty-four-month-old toddlers understand more of what they hear. Their experiences with words in the first year, as well as how and when words are used, help toddlers understand both single words and phrases. Toddlers’ understanding of what words mean develops over time to become more similar to adults. Toddlers develop their listening abilities through interactions with their caregivers. For more information on interacting with toddlers, please refer to Interacting 13 – 24 Months .If you have concerns about your child’s hearing, please refer to the Auditory section of this website for more information on how hearing develops and how to get help.

Understanding Words

Twelve- to twenty-four-month-old toddlers understand more words than they say. Typically, they understand more verbs than nouns. They also respond to more words said by their caregivers.

Understanding More Words Than They Say

Toddlers understand more words than they actually say. In fact, they may understand four times more words than they can say. Mothers’ reports to researchers suggest that 16-month-old toddlers understand between 100-200 words but say fewer than 50. By twenty-four months of age, there is a smaller difference between the number of words toddlers understand and the number of words they say.

Understanding More Verbs than Nouns

Twelve- to twenty-four-month-old toddlers understand more verbs (action words like “run” or “sit”) than nouns (names of things like “table” and “plant”). Of the first 10 words that they understand, five are usually verbs, while only one or two words are nouns. In contrast, young toddlers typically use more nouns than verbs when talking. Over time, toddlers will come to understand more nouns than verbs.

Responding More Consistently to More Words

 In the twelve- to twenty-four-month period, toddlers respond more often and more correctly to a wider variety of words. Fifteen-month-old toddlers may be able to point to familiar clothes, persons, toys, and animals when labeled. At this age, Avery would point to her toy purse when her mom asked “Where’s your purse?” By 18 months, toddlers can also point to some body parts. During bath time, Max’s dad played a game where he asked “Where’s your nose?” Max’s response was to point to it.

Toddlers show their understanding of words through their emotions and actions. For example, at 16 months, Avery loved to go for rides in the bike trailer. When her mom said “Time for a bike ride,” Avery showed her understanding by running to where the bike was kept. What toddlers say also provides insight into what they understand. Overhearing his dad mention having ice cream, twenty-month-old Max showed that he understood by saying “Yum!” For more information on toddlers’ understanding of word meanings, please refer to Speaking 13 – 24 Months.

Twelve- to twenty-four-month-old toddlers respond to both scolding and praise. Gradually they begin to respond to the words their caregivers use and not just to the tone of voice. For example, at 17 months, Avery was learning that her parents did not want her to climb up on the kitchen chairs – but like a typical toddler, she kept trying. Many times, her parents scolded her, saying “No climbing on chairs” with stern voices and serious looks and took her away from the chairs to play with her toys. Eventually when her parents heard a chair scraping along the kitchen floor, they could matter-of-factly remind Avery “No climbing” without even looking at her and she would run away to play with her toys. When Max was 18 months old, his nan praised him, saying that he had done a good job drawing a picture. Max showed that he understood the words and not just his nan’s happy tone of voice by running to show his mom and dad the picture.

Developing Meanings for Words

Learning the meanings of words takes time. At first, toddlers and adults may understand words differently. Toddlers have certain strategies to help them learn word meanings. They use cues from the world around them to help them learn what words mean. They also pay close attention to their caregivers. Caregivers can help toddlers understand the meaning of words.

How Toddlers Use Labels to Learn the Meanings of Words

Researchers have shown that toddlers follow two different learning patterns when learning word meanings. In the first pattern, toddlers assume that objects that are similar in how they look, or what they do, all have the same label. For example, 16-month-old Max called everything that held liquid a “cup.” He called bowls “cups” at mealtime and called scoops “cups” at bath time. In the second learning pattern, toddlers assume that a new word refers to the object that is new or doesn’t already have a name. Using this pattern, toddlers learn the relationship between a word and its meaning after hearing a word only a few times. For example, while on vacation Avery’s mom served 17-month-old Avery pizza for the first time. Avery seemed to love the taste and asked for “more” several times. Each time, her mom said “More pizza?” Now when Avery hears the word “pizza” at mealtime she becomes very excited.

How Toddlers Use Their Listening Skills to Understand the Meanings of Words

Listening to Sounds

Toddlers use their listening skills to help them understand the meanings of words. At first, young toddlers are only able to tell words apart that have different sound structures (e.g., “dog” versus “cookie”). As a result, the words that they understand also have very different sounds and syllable shapes. Their ability to tell words apart develops over time. Gradually, they are able to tell words apart from one another and to understand words that contain similar sounds or have similar syllable structures. By 24 months, over half of the single syllable words that they say rhyme with other words also in their vocabularies. For example, at 24 months, Avery said “hat,” “bat,” and “cat.” These words all rhyme, as they have the same final two sounds. Toddlers’ ability to produce similar-sounding words suggests that their ability to hear differences between words is continuing to develop.

Listening for Intent

Initially, toddlers do not understand what each word means when caregivers talk. Rather they understand the overall purpose of what is said. Their caregivers’ tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions, and the time of day and context all help toddlers understand what the caregiver is trying to say. For example, when Max’s mom and dad said “Time to go Max,” he often came to the door. Max used his parents’ tone of voice, their gestures, smiles and position at the front door to understand that it was time to go home. Gradually, toddlers rely less on context when understanding caregiver speech. As Max got closer to two years of age, his parents could say, “Time to go,” when they weren’t at the door and he would go and get his shoes.

How Caregivers Help Toddlers Develop Understanding of Words

Both toddlers and caregivers need to be actively engaged for effective word learning. Toddlers let their caregivers know what they are interested in by looking, pointing, and vocalizing. Caregivers then look and label the object. Toddlers assume that the label and the object being looked at are related. For example, when Avery saw a drum for the first time, she looked, pointed and chattered excitedly. Avery’s mom responded by looking at the drum and labeling it. While they played, Avery’s mom labeled it over and over again. After many play and listening opportunities, Avery learned the meaning of the word “drum.” Eighteen-month-old toddlers do not always have to pay close attention in order to learn the link between a caregiver label and an object. They seem to learn just from being in the learning situation and overhearing the labels provided by caregivers.

Differences in How Toddlers and Adults Understand Words

Sometimes, toddlers may think that a word only refers to a single known object. For example, Max first learned the word “doggie” when playing with his Grandpa’s dog, Bailey. When Max heard his parents say “doggie,” Max would respond by looking for a dog only when they were at his Grandpa’s house. He didn’t respond to the word when “doggie” was used to refer to other neighbourhood dogs. Max’s reaction suggested that to him “doggie” meant only Grandpa’s Bailey. Researchers call it underextension when toddlers only partially understand a word’s meaning. Underextensions are common during the second year. Because some words are only used in the context of games or routines, toddlers may only understand them in that context.

Understanding Categories

An important part of learning what words mean is developing an understanding of why different things can have the same label. To develop this understanding, toddlers must learn about categories.

How Toddlers Develop an Understanding of Categories

Researchers have different ideas about how toddlers learn categories. One idea is that toddlers first identify special features that are shared by each example in a category. For example, special features for “dog,” may include that they have legs, bark, and are alive. Toddlers then use these special features to determine if a new four-legged animal is also a dog.

Another idea is that toddlers use prototypes or typical examples to build their understanding of a concept category. As a result, toddlers may not recognize something as belonging to a category if it is not similar to the typical example. For example, toddlers may use robins as their prototype for “bird.” As a result, penguins, as they don’t resemble robins in size, shape or ability to fly, may not at first be recognized as a “bird.”

Some researchers think that toddlers will assign an object to a particular category based on the likelihood that it is from that category. For example, a toddler may think that a penguin is likely a bird because it has the bird-like features of wings and a beak even though it does not fly.

How Caregivers Help Toddlers Develop Understanding of Categories

There are two main ways caregivers can help toddlers develop their understanding of categories:
1) Give category labels to typical examples of the category. For example, Avery has several different kinds of toy horses that came with different play sets. Avery’s mom labels them all “horses” when talking with Avery. Right now she does not bother mentioning to Avery more specific labels such as “foal” for a baby horse and “Clydesdale” for a heavy work horse.
2) Use specific names to refer to less typical examples of a category. For example, Avery also has a toy zebra. Instead of calling this a horse, Avery’s mom gives it the more specific and appropriate label of “zebra.”

Understanding Phrases

In addition to developing their understanding of single words, twelve- to twenty-four-month-old toddlers are also developing an ability to understand phrases spoken by their caregivers. They use cues from their developing knowledge of language and from the environment. There are also specific ways that caregivers can help toddlers develop their understanding of phrases.

Cues Toddler Use to Understand Phrases

Toddlers as young as 12 months have been found to prefer to listen to phrases with normal word order for their home language. This preference suggests that they are paying attention to the order of words. By 13 to 15 months of age, toddlers may be able to recognize that when words are spoken together, they mean something beyond that of each word individually. For example, “The dog chased the cat” has a different meaning from “The cat chased the dog” even though the meaning of the individual words is the same.

Researchers have found that 17-month-old toddlers whose speech is mostly single words can use word order to understand phrases. By the time they are able to say two-word combinations, toddlers are typically also able to understand some word endings like –ed for past tense (e.g., walked, washed) and plural –s (e.g., cats, crayons). Understanding word endings helps them understand phrases.

Finally, toddlers use cues from the world around them to understand phrases. How objects are typically used and routines provide toddlers with information on how meaningful words are related. For example, Max has learned that his mom fills his sippy cup with water from the fridge. While filling his cup, Max’s mom often talks about the cup and how she is getting Max a drink of water. When he later hears his mom say “We need a drink of water,” Max shows his understanding by bringing his empty cup to his mom.

How Caregivers Help Toddlers Develop Understanding of Phrases

How caregivers talk helps toddlers understand the relationships between words. Caregivers may use short phrases when talking with toddlers. For example, instead of saying “Tommy likes to play with cars because they are fun,” Avery’s mom shortened it to “Tommy likes cars. They are fun.”

Caregivers may also start phrases with the person or thing doing the action or having the feeling being talked about. For example, instead of saying “That bike ride was fun for you,” Max’s dad said, “You had fun biking.” Instead of saying “The ball was kicked by mom,” Avery’s dad said, “Mom kicked the ball.”

How Do Researchers Study Toddlers’ Understanding of Words?

To study toddlers’ understanding of words, researchers first used tasks in which toddlers had to point to a picture which matched the label given by the researcher. However, it is difficult to develop pictures for some words and toddler pointing is not reliable. For these two reasons, researchers developed a tool called the “preferential looking paradigm” as another way of testing what toddlers understand. Similar to the previous method, two pictures are displayed and the researcher labels one. However, instead of asking the toddlers to point, the researchers observe which picture the toddler looks at and for how long. Using this method, researchers have found that although toddlers may use a word incorrectly, they often correctly understand its meaning.

Sample Gosse, H., & Gotzke, C. (2007). Parent-Caregiver Narrative: Listening 13 - 24 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 6. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development