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

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Introduction to Speaking 13 - 24 Months - Towards Word Combinationsclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

In their second year of life, most toddlers will go from saying their first word to being able to say 100 different words. They will also begin to combine words. Toddlers use their growing vocabularies to label objects and to interact socially. Speaking continues to develop while they are interacting with others. For more information, please refer to Interacting 13-24 months.

Vocalizations - Increasing Control of Sounds

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.

Vocalizations - Increasing Control of Sounds

Even after they are producing real words, twelve- to twenty-four-month-old toddlers often continue to produce babbling, jargon and protowords. These early vocalizations continue to be important in helping toddlers develop control over their voices and the sounds they produce. Toddlers show their increased vocal control by making their voices higher and lower when speaking. Babbling and pitch development in the period from 13 to 24 months is discussed in this section. For more information on the development of jargon and protowords, please refer to Vocalizing 10 - 12 months.


In their second year of life, toddlers often continue to babble. Babbling helps toddlers develop their ability to produce early speech sounds. Toddlers may repeat single syllables (e.g., "bababa") or say strings of different syllables (e.g., "bagidabu"). By around 12 to 13 months, toddlers more often produce babble that has a variety of early speech sounds. Avery's parents noticed that Avery used more sounds when babbling once she was a year old. She often seemed to be putting together quite complicated strings of sounds like "abeebootu." It was almost like hearing a musician warm up by playing different notes!

English-speaking toddlers typically produce p, b, t, d, k, g, m, n, w, sh, h, and y when babbling. In fact, they use these 12 sounds in 95% of their babbling. Toddlers learning English typically use these sounds in their first words. It is interesting to note that both Mommy and Daddy contain sounds that are early developing. Other sounds not typically produced during babbling like l, r, v, th, ch, and j generally do not appear in early words. As each child is unique, some toddlers may use different sounds from their playmates.

The sounds that toddlers produce are affected by the language or languages they hear. For example, toddlers who are learning Mayan may produce the l sound during babbling. These toddlers' babble is very different from toddlers learning English who do not usually produce l. Some toddlers continue babbling even after they are saying words. Other toddlers may stop babbling before producing their first words.


Twelve- to twenty-four-month-old toddlers have more control over their voices than when they were younger. They can make their voices higher, lower, louder, and quieter. Toddlers are using this skill to help their listeners understand what they mean. First, toddlers develop a flat or falling tone. They use this tone when naming items. One of Avery's first words was shoes. When she saw a pair of shoes, she would say, "Shoes," in a very matter-of-fact way.

Between 13 and 15 months, toddlers begin to produce words with a rising pitch. They use this tone when requesting, gaining attention, and expressing interest. When Avery saw a particularly colorful pair of shoes in the rack at music class, she pointed at the shoes, looked at her mom and said, "Shoes!" with an excited rise in her voice. Around the same time, toddlers also begin to produce words or phrases that start at a high pitch and then drop to a lower one. This pitch change is used to show surprise, recognition, insistence, and greeting. When Max's neighbors showed him their new baby, you could hear the surprise in Max's voice when he said, "Baby!" Toddlers also develop a high rising pitch to express anticipation. Max says, "Daddy!" with a high pitch when his Dad comes home, expressing his eagerness to play with him. To express stress, toddlers also learn to produce words or phrases with a high rising-falling contour. Avery said, "Mommy no" with this contour when she was worried about being left at a new caregiver's home.

At 18 months, toddlers may also begin to use a falling-rising contour for warning and a rising-falling contour in play. It is clear that toddlers are purposefully using pitch to help them communicate what they feel and mean. Researchers have found that toddlers only use these contours when talking with others. They don't use these patterns when talking to themselves.

Speaking - From the First Word to Ever-Increasing Vocabularies

By the end of the first year, many toddlers have said their first word. However, some toddlers may not say their first word until 15 months of age. Many children will continue to produce protowords - or vocalizations that are always used in the same situation but which do not sound like an adult word. For more information on the development of protowords, please refer to Vocalizing 10 - 12 months. By their second birthdays, toddlers will be able to say over 100 words.

Characteristics of the Early Words

Early words generally serve a social purpose and are usually nouns, verbs, or adjectives. They often contain a limited number of sounds and have simple structures. Toddlers vary in terms of the pattern and rate of vocabulary growth, their use of protowords, and the syllable structures they produce.

Meaning of Early Words

Generally, toddlers first learn words that serve social purposes. These first words may be the name of a toy, food, or family member, or a greeting, farewell or other social phrase such as peek-a-boo. Toddlers may use these first words instead of a gesture or they may use both the gesture and word together (e.g., saying hi in place of or in addition to waving). When Avery was a year old, she enjoyed waving goodbye to those leaving her house. When she started to say bye at 14 months, she stopped waving. This change surprised her parents but it actually showed Avery's growing awareness of adult behavior. Adults do not typically wave unless greeting at a distance. Avery continued to wave goodbye when her parents were also waving to visitors driving away from the house.

Young toddlers' first words serve the same functions as their gestures and vocalizations did in the previous six months. They use words to name objects or people and to gain attention or some object. Instead of yelling as he did when he was 10 months old, at 14 months Max said, "Mo," to ask for more snack. Early words used by toddlers may also imitate or suggest the object described. For example, Avery first said, "Woof-woof," for dog. Gradually, toddlers learn the adult words. By the time she was 19 months old, Avery said, "Puppy," for dog.

By twenty-one months, toddlers' vocabularies may contain sound effects and names for food, drinks, animals, body parts, clothing, people, toys, and vehicles. Words for actions, games and routines, as well as adjectives like pretty and hot may also be produced. Sometimes toddlers attempt to produce frequently used adult phrases. For example, Max said "anku" for "thank you."

Meaning of Early Words

Toddlers mostly use content words (i.e., nouns, verbs, adjectives). English-learning toddlers seem to prefer nouns. They also develop verbs in a particular pattern.

Focus on Content Words

When speaking, toddlers tend to use mostly what researchers call open-class words -content words like nouns (names of things like fish and house), verbs (actions like run and jump), and adjectives (describing words like pretty and hot). Young toddlers rarely use closed-class words such as prepositions (e.g. with, from), conjunctions (e.g., and, but), articles (e.g., the, an), pronouns (e.g., he, she) and auxiliaries (e.g., are, is). As a result, toddler speech during the second year is often called telegraphic speech because in telegrams closed-class words are also left out. For example, Avery said, "Wan baby" instead of "want my baby" and "Baby tees" instead of "The baby has cheese." There are two possible reasons why toddlers learning English may use more content words. It may be easier for toddlers to figure out what these words are referring to. Secondly, content words may be easier to hear in conversational speech. Toddlers learning different languages may acquire open- and closed-class words at different times. Toddlers learning Italian or Hebrew may learn closed-class words earlier.

Preference for Nouns

Most frequently, toddlers' early words are nouns that refer to specific people or objects in their world. Max's first word was "mommom" for "Mom" while Avery's first word was "shoes". Toddlers generally do not have nouns that refer to groups (e.g., forest) or abstract concepts (e.g., joy) in their early vocabularies.

Typically about 60 to 65% of the words in a toddler's first 50 words are nouns, while fewer than 20% are verbs or action words. The proportions of nouns and verbs will become more similar once the toddler's vocabulary reaches 100 words. Why do toddlers use more nouns? One explanation is that caregivers more frequently label objects than actions or features of items (e.g., small, pretty, round). Toddlers may also produce more nouns because they refer to more concrete items and are therefore more easily identified. Finally toddlers may produce fewer verbs because they can use them with different nouns to create a variety of messages. They simply need fewer verbs to get their messages across. For example, Avery used the verb do in different ways. She said, "Mommy do," to talk about her Mommy doing something and "Do up" to ask her Dad to lift her up.

Toddlers learning languages other than English may not show the same preference for nouns. For example, toddlers learning Mandarin may learn verbs at the same time as they learn nouns.

Early Verbs

At first, toddlers may use protoverbs or vocalizations that accompany actions of putting objects together, taking them apart, or putting them in, out, and off. At 15 months, Avery consistently said something that sounded like "Oosh" when putting each of her blocks into a container.

Toddlers may also use greetings such as bye-bye and nouns such as ni-night in verb-like ways. While watching his dad leave the house one day, Max pointed out the window and said "Bye-bye." To his mom, it seemed that Max was trying to describe his dad's actions.

Later, toddlers begin using general-purpose action words such as do and make. They may use these general verbs first because they are easier to use than more specific verbs like run and wash. Unlike specific verbs, general verbs can be used in many different sentences without changing their meaning. For example, Avery said, "Do up" (Do up) when going up the stairs, "Do tabo"(Do water table) when asking her mom to get out the water table, and "Do boks" (Do blocks) when showing her dad her block tower.

Toddlers also use verbs to direct their listeners' attention. These action words require that listeners take the toddler's point of view. When walking outside, Max frequently pointed and said, "Look!" His mom's response was to stop, crouch down, look at and talk about the thing that had caught his eye.

Gradually, toddlers use verbs that refer to specific actions. Some of these verbs will refer to actions on objects (e.g., push) while some will not (e.g., walk).

Sounds in Early Words

There are some similarities across toddlers in what sounds are used in their first words and in how these sounds are used. Several explanations have been offered for why some sounds are used more frequently in toddlers' first words.

What Sounds are Used

Generally, toddlers' first words contain the same speech sounds as they used in babbling. Toddlers take a trial-and-error approach to saying single words, doing their best to say the words in the same way as adults. At first, toddlers' attempts may only be recognizable as words because they are consistently used to refer to a particular object or situation. For example, Avery's mom did not realize that 15-month-old Avery was trying to say kitty when she said "ih-ee" until she noticed that Avery always said it while looking for or playing with her stuffed cat. Over time, most toddler productions become more adult-like. Avery's mom noticed that Avery's "ih-ee" changed to sound more like kitty about four months later. Some toddler vocalizations may continue to sound like approximations of the adult form. At two years old, Avery still said "tees" for "cheese."

Sounds most frequently found in toddlers' first words include p, b, t, d, k, g, and h. Occasionally toddlers may use m, n, f, and s. Toddlers vary in the exact order and age that they develop new sounds. For example, Max used the k sound several months before Avery did, but she used the p sound well before he did. Some toddlers may prefer certain sounds over others. These preferences may affect which words they try to say. For example, Max preferred the k sound and said many words that started with k like cat and car. Avery preferred p and tried more words that started with p like pop and puppy. These preferences are highly individual.

First words rarely, if ever, contain consonant clusters (e.g., tr or sl). If a word does contain a consonant cluster, most toddlers will not say the first consonant in the cluster (e.g. saying "pill" for "spill"). About 10% of toddlers will drop the second consonant (e.g., saying "sool" for "school"). Other toddlers may add a vowel in the middle of the cluster (e.g., saying "buloo" for "blue").

Why Toddlers Use Certain Sounds

Toddlers' developing motor control may be one reason why some sounds are used more frequently than others. For example, p, b, t, d, k, and g are all early developing sounds. They are all known as "stop sounds" because air flowing from the lungs is "stopped" by the front or back of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth or the lips touching together. In comparison, for f and s which develop later, the tongue must be kept at a certain distance from another spot in the mouth to allow air to flow through. This action requires finer motor control and may be more difficult for toddlers.

Toddlers' perceptual or listening skills may also affect which sounds they use. It can be difficult to hear the difference between some speech sounds. For example, s and sh sound quite similar. Because they sound similar, toddlers may temporarily use the same sound for both. For example, at first Avery used the s sound at the beginning of sit and at the beginning of shoes. Later, she started using a more defined sh sound in shoes and other sh words.

Structure of Early Words

First words are generally one to two syllables in length. The syllable shape of these words may be vowel-consonant (VC; e.g., bye), consonant-vowel (CV; e.g., up) or consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel (CVCV; e.g., puppy). When saying CVCV words, toddlers often simplify the words by producing the same consonant sounds in both positions. However, toddlers will still produce the correct vowels in these types of words. For example, at 17 months, Max said "dawdie" for "doggie." Sometimes toddlers do not say the unstressed syllable in CVCV words. At 19 months, Avery called her friend Taylor, "Tay," leaving off the last unstressed syllable. Toddlers may omit unstressed syllables because they are more difficult to hear.

Toddlers may also produce consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words (e.g., dog, pet) but will often change the syllable structure of these words. Toddlers may delete the final consonant (e.g., saying "ha" for "hat") or add a vowel sound following the final consonant (e.g., saying "hat-i" for "hat"). Over time, toddlers become able to say CVC words accurately including those that begin and end with different sounds (e.g., cup).

How Toddlers Choose Words to Say

While it may be easy to figure out why a toddler would choose to say mommy or daddy, it can be more difficult to figure out why toddlers choose to say other words. Researchers have identified five factors that guide the vocabulary choices of toddlers: environment, word type, sounds in the word, usefulness, and personal style.


Simply put, toddlers learn words that they hear spoken. Toddlers may produce words that they hear more often, earlier than those that they only hear occasionally. For example, Max's family has a pussy cat. Max often hears "Feed Holly" and "See the cat." Avery does not have a pussy cat and cats are rarely talked about. Max is more likely than Avery to say cat as an early word.

Word Type

As discussed in Type of Words toddlers are more likely to use open-class or content words like nouns (names of things), verbs (actions or feelings), and adjectives (describing words). They also tend to learn concrete (e.g., dog) rather than abstract words (e.g., joy). Avery's first four words were mommy, daddy, cheese, and shoes - all very concrete nouns.


At first, toddlers may choose words to say based on the syllable shape, length, and sounds found in the words. They may first choose words with simple shapes that contain sounds they can produce. Toddlers may avoid saying words that contain sounds or sound sequences that they cannot say. For example, young toddlers living in an English-speaking environment are not likely to say fish correctly, as f usually develops later in childhood. At 14 months, Max seemed to avoid saying "fish" to talk about his pet fish. He pointed at the fish instead. When toddlers do attempt words that contain late-developing sounds, they may produce the word using sounds that they are able to say. Max did this when at 16 months he said "pi" for "fish." Generally by twenty-four months, toddlers are no longer limited by their ability to produce sounds when choosing new vocabulary. For information on the role of sound and word structures in vocabulary choices, see Sounds in Early Words and Structure of Early Words.


Toddlers may say words that are more useful to them before others. For example, toddlers may say sock before shirt if they are able to put on their socks before their shirts. Avery likely said shoes and cheese early because she liked those two things and couldn't reach either of them by herself. By learning these words, she could request two of her favorite things.

Personal Style

Researchers have identified two personal styles that may influence toddlers' vocabulary choices. Some toddlers prefer to label objects and people and have word structure and sound preferences which guide the words that they try to say. These toddlers are referred to as having a "referential style." They tend to interact more with adults and use more single words. They gradually build longer phrases and sentences from single words. Max seemed to have this personal style. He tended to produce words with a consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel (CVCV) structure like mommy, daddy and Holly (his pussy cat's name). He enjoyed looking at books and photographs and labeling the people and objects in them. Labeling, imitating and describing by caregivers have been found to help toddlers with a referential style learn language. For example, Max's dad said "Look, monkey," "Eee-eee, monkey," and "Little monkey" while he looked at Max's favorite monkey book with him.

Other toddlers have an "expressive style." These children are considered risk-takers as they produce words regardless of whether they are able to produce them accurately or not. Toddlers with an expressive style tend to use fewer nouns and more interacting words (e.g., hi) and functional words (e.g., mine). They also use what researchers call unanalyzed wholes or two-word combinations that are actually used by the toddlers as single words (e.g., allgone). These toddlers tend to interact more with peers. They learn language by gradually breaking longer phrases and sentences into single words. Avery seemed to have an expressive style. As a young toddler, she enjoyed saying "Hi!"to everyone she met and used an unanalyzed whole "Ohwow!" to express surprise. At 18 months, she occasionally said "Howareyou?" after saying hi, likely imitating her mom greeting her friends. Avery talked a lot to both adults and other children but most of what she said was impossible for those around her to understand. Gradually her listeners began to be able to pick out specific words in what she was saying. Toddlers with an expressive language style seem to benefit from longer conversations with caregivers and from caregivers adjusting the pitch of their voices to emphasize certain words. For example, Avery's mom emphasized the most important words in short phrases and sentences by saying them slightly louder and longer (i.e., "Let's go to the store"). Avery's mom was also careful to give Avery a turn to speak - pausing and looking expectantly at Avery.

For information on how personal style can affect vocabulary growth, refer to Patterns of Word Learning - Effect of Personal Style.

How Toddlers Use Words

Interacting with Others

Most frequently, toddlers use their developing vocabulary to label objects and to interact with others. Toddlers will use social words in the same context as they were originally heard. For example, Max first said bye-bye while waving goodbye to his dad.

One Meaning per Word

Between 12 and 16 months, toddlers typically use each of their new words to mean only one thing. For example, toddlers may say more to request but not to describe when there is more than one. By the time they are 24 months old, toddlers can use the same word to express different things. Avery began to use more to request more food at a meal, protest a too-short bath time, and describe how a friend has more toys.

It is important to note that sometimes a toddler's understanding of word meaning is the same as adults' understanding from the first time the toddler uses the word. For example, Avery seemed to use the word shoes appropriately the first time she said it. She quickly began to use shoes to label a variety of footwear from her own toddler shoes to her dad's boots.

Inaccurate Uses: Underextensions and Overextensions


Sometimes toddlers do not understand that a word can refer to a whole class of similar objects not just a single item. As a result, toddlers may only use a word to refer to a single familiar object. For example, Max first called his family pet doggie but would not call any other dogs in the neighbourhood or pictures of dogs doggie. Researchers call these underextensions - as the toddler has only a limited understanding of how the word can be used. Typically, within a month after learning the new word, toddlers will generalize the word's meaning to other cases. Max fairly quickly began to call other dogs doggie. Underextensions may appear throughout toddlerhood as new words are learned. They are more common during the earliest stages of word learning.


Sometimes, toddlers may use the same word to refer to many items, extending its meaning beyond that of adults. For example, Avery used the word car for all vehicles whether they were vans, trucks, motorcycles, or fire trucks. This naming is referred to as overextension - the toddler broadens the meaning of the word. Overextension is common during the period of rapid vocabulary growth that occurs prior to the production of two-word phrases. In fact, researchers have shown that when toddlers' have 75 words in their vocabularies, about 30% of the words are overextended. Letters, vehicles and clothing categories are more frequently overextended than other word categories. While toddlers may overextend when they use these words, their understanding of the words is often quite adult-like.

Why Under- and Overextensions Occur

With experience in and exposure to language, toddlers use fewer underextensions and overextensions. Overextensions and underextensions are usually considered to be evidence that toddlers understand words differently than adults. However, there may be other reasons why they occur. Overextensions may occur because toddlers cannot remember the correct label. Alternately, they may not yet know the correct label for the object. Toddlers may also be using overextensions to comment on similarities between objects or as a joke. For example, at 17 months, Avery would sometimes pat her mom's leg and say "kitty". She would smile and laugh when her mom would protest, "I'm not a kitty!"

How Toddlers' Vocabularies Grow

Vocabulary Growth from 12-18 months

Vocabulary growth is slow in the first few months after the appearance of the first word. During this time, toddler speech consists primarily of jargon and single words. Three months after the appearance of the first words, a toddler may have a four- to six-word vocabulary. It is important to remember that toddlers understand many more words than they can say. Mothers have reported to researchers that 16-month-old toddlers understand between 100-200 words but say fewer than 50. At 16 months, typically developing toddlers may say anywhere from 1 to 160 words. A wide range of normal! Once they say their first word, toddlers typically add an average of 8 to 11 words to their vocabularies each month until they are 18 months old.

By 18 months, most toddlers use 50 different words and some two-word combinations. Within this 50-word vocabulary, toddlers may use 8 to 10 words more frequently than others. Some of the remaining words may be used once a day, while others may be used once every few months. At this time, toddlers also begin to refer to themselves by name and may sing and hum. Eighteen-month-old toddlers continue to use words to label things and to gain attention but also use words to express demands. Avery consistently used the word up to demand that her parents pick her up. After toddlers have 50 words in their vocabularies, the average rate of vocabulary growth increases to 22 to 37 new words per month.

Vocabulary Growth from 18-24 Months

There is a period of rapid vocabulary growth after 18 months. Toddlers understand and use many more words.

By 21 months, toddlers begin to use I and mine. By 24 months, most toddlers will have a 200 - 300 word vocabulary. However, vocabulary sizes between 50 and 550 words are considered to be within the average range. Twenty-four-month-old toddlers are able to name most common everyday objects. They use some prepositions (i.e, in, on) and pronouns (i.e., I, me, you) although not always correctly. For example, Max said "Me go" instead of "I go." These toddlers also use some regular verb endings (e.g., walks, kicked, running) and plural -s (e.g., cats, cups). For example, Avery proudly said "I kicked it!" the first time she kicked her soccer ball. In addition to labeling, attention-getting and demanding, twenty-four-month-old toddlers also use their words to request, question, state, express emotions, and to accompany their play. While playing trucks with his dad, Max said "Go dad," "Truck bye-bye?," "Big truck," "Wow Dad!," and "Go go truck go." Toddlers this age also show increasing interest in rhyming songs and stories. Avery had always enjoyed music but at 24 months she began to pay even closer attention when her mom sang to her. She tried very hard to learn the actions for the songs. At 24 months, Max began to sit and listen to longer stories.

Patterns of Word Learning

Effect of Personal Style

Toddlers with different personal styles of language learning may have different rates of vocabulary growth. Toddlers with a referential style tend to show a rapid increase in vocabulary size between fourteen and eighteen months, while toddlers with an expressive style tend to show a more gradual increase in vocabulary size. For more information about personal styles of language learning, refer to Personal Style.

Variable Rates of Vocabulary Growth

During the course of vocabulary growth, toddlers may seem to "lose" established words as they gain new ones. For example, Avery seemed to "lose" the word kitty at around 16 months. Her mom realized that she had lost interest in the stuffed cat that had previously been a favorite companion. Because she no longer played with the stuffed cat, she did not say kitty as much. She did, however, say new and different words for the things she was now interested in. It is important to note that most children who seem to "lose" established words are like Avery and have simply moved on to words that are more useful to them. If a toddler stops talking, there may be reason for concern. Refer to When to Be Concerned about Toddler Language Development for more information. Parents should discuss any concerns with their child's doctor and contact a speech-language pathologist. Information on how to contact a speech-language pathologist in your area is provided in How to Find a Speech-Language Pathologist.

A toddler's rate of vocabulary growth may vary over time. There may be some periods in which no new words are added. The rate of toddlers' vocabulary growth and the amount of speech used by caregivers are related. Researchers have found that toddlers whose caregivers talk more with them, typically develop larger vocabularies more quickly.

Returning to Incorrect Forms

As toddlers learn more words, sometimes they start to say words incorrectly even when they used to say those same words accurately. The accuracy of their word productions may change when they generalize sound patterns in new words to established words. For example, Avery said "fan" accurately from a young age but said "fit" for "sit." When she learned s, saying "Sam" and "see" accurately, she replaced f for s in all words even those words in which f was the correct sound. She began saying "san" for "fan" even though she had always said "fan" accurately.

Toddlers may omit an established sound when first trying it in new words. For example, Max said "Hi" correctly from a young age. When he began to learn other words starting with h like hat and house, he said them without h - "at" and "ouse". He continued to say h in hi.

Within a short while, Avery and Max had figured out which sounds they needed to say in which words and were saying the words correctly. Their caregivers helped them by carefully repeating the words to them, slightly emphasizing the tricky sounds (e.g., "fffffan" for "fan" and "hhhhat" for "hat").

Speaking - Combining Words

Towards the middle of the 13 to 24 month period, toddlers begin producing word combinations. Combining words helps them say more of what they want to say and also makes it easier for others to understand them.

Transitioning to Two-Word Combinations

Before they use two-word combinations, toddlers may go through a transition period during which they produce sequences of words, gestures and sounds. Four different types of transitional combinations have been identified by researchers.

  1. Toddlers may add a consonant-vowel (CV) syllable either before or after a word. For example, a toddler may say "ma baby" or "baby da."
  2. Toddlers may use the same consonant-vowel (CV) or consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel (CVCV) syllable with a variety of words. For example, a toddler might use the CVCV form "beda" with a variety of other words such as "beda baby" or "doggie beda."
  3. Toddlers may repeat a single utterance. For example, a toddler might say "doggie, doggie."
  4. Toddlers may produce jargon or babble followed by a word. For example, a toddler might say "babagidu doggie."

Sometimes toddlers produce what appear to be two word combinations such as "all-gone" or "go-bye." They are called unanalyzed wholes because the toddler has learned them as a single unit. To be considered a true two-word combination, the toddler must use at least one of the two words as a single word (e.g., gone) or as part of a different word combination (e.g., Daddy gone). If they don't, these productions are actually considered single words.

Toddlers may also produce single words one after the other. Sometimes, the words may be related to each other in meaning or build on the previous utterance. For example, Avery said "Ow. Eye." when a little friend accidentally hit her eye with his elbow. She said each word with a falling pitch and there was a pause between them. These types of productions are not considered to be true word combinations. In true word combinations, word order is important to the meaning of the sentence. The meaning of "Ow. Eye." would be the same whether Avery said it "Eye. Ow." or "Ow. Eye."

To be a true word combination, the pitch, pause and word order of these utterances must become more similar to the patterns in short adult speech. For example, if Avery later said "Ow, eye" without pausing between the words and in a way that sounded more like "Ow, my eye" without my, her production could be considered a word combination.

When Word Combinations Develop

At 18 months, most toddlers use two-word combinations. Some toddlers may combine words as early as 15 months. Factors that affect when toddlers begin combining words include when they produce their first word, when they understand 50 words and the responsiveness of caregivers at 12 months. Caregivers who were very attentive and frequently talked with their one-year-olds, tend to have toddlers who combine words earlier. By 24 months, the majority of toddlers produce word combinations. As their vocabularies grow, toddlers use two-word combinations more frequently.

How Toddlers Combine Words

Toddlers learn how to combine words by listening to adult speech. How toddlers combine words shows their creativity with language. When combining words, toddlers follow three predictable patterns.

  1. Using a word interchangeably either at the beginning or end of the combination. For example, saying "eat cookie" or "cookie eat".
  2. Following a consistent word order that appears to reflect adult patterns and is not generated by the toddler. For example, saying "come here".
  3. Following a consistent word order but the combination is generated by the toddler. For example, saying "Mommy do".

There appears to be a developmental order in toddlers' use of these patterns. Toddlers' tend to use the second pattern of consistent word order reflecting an adult pattern (e.g., come here) before they use the other patterns.

Meanings of Word Combinations

Most two-word combinations used by toddlers refer to objects. At first, toddlers combine words to indicate recurrence or something happening again. For example, Max's first two-word combination was "More milk." They may also combine words to indicate nonexistence or something not happening or not being present. For example, Avery's first two-word combination was "No sleep." Between 15 and 24 months, seventy percent of what toddlers say indicates recurrence or nonexistence. Recurrence is first used for requesting. Nonexistence may be used to comment, request, reject, or deny.

Around 18 months, some toddlers may also begin using word combinations to describe physical characteristics. In these combinations a describing word is usually used before an object or person. For example, Max said, "Big doggie," to describe his neighbor's German shepherd dog. Toddlers may not completely master this form until 30 months.

By 21 months, most toddlers are also combining words to describe how objects or actions and locations relate in space. Toddlers first pair an object and location. Max started by saying "Doggie up." Later toddlers pair an action and location, as Avery did when she said "push me" while playing on the swings. Toddlers may also describe a stationary object and its location. For example, Max said "Doggie house" to describe how his neighbor's dog was inside his doghouse. Generally, toddlers will describe stationary objects before moving ones. Toddlers will eventually describe a moving object and the direction of its movement. When Avery's aunt picked up the new baby, Avery said "Baby up."

Toddlers also start to indicate possession when they are 21 months old. Max first indicated possession by saying, "My ball" to his friend Rachael when Rachael started to take it home with her.

Transitioning to Longer Combinations

Once toddlers get to the point where half of what they say is two-word combinations, they begin to produce three-word combinations. They make these three-word combinations in one of two ways: 1) by recombining two-word phrases (e.g., "Baby eat" + "Eat cookie" becomes "Baby eat cookie") and 2) expanding existing sentences to add information (e.g., Eat big cookie). The most common three-word sentences are agent + action + object (e.g., Baby color crayons) and agent + action + location (e.g., Doggie sleep yard). Toddlers' sentences may also serve several language functions. For example, in "Mommy cookies hot?" the toddler is requesting both information and an object.

Sentences are expanded to four words in the same way as three-word sentences. Toddlers may be producing some four-word sentences at 24 months of age.

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Parent Narrative: Language 13 - 24 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development