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Functional Words To Teach Your Toddler First

In this article we will discuss:

Father teaching child early speech sounds with foundational words for speech development. Better Speech.

When your toddler is just beginning to produce words, they might show frustration when they can’t express what they want and need. That is why it is important to introduce functional words first. Teaching your toddler these essential words will give them the tools they need to communicate effectively. We will be giving you 10 common functional words you can teach your toddler and tips on how to teach them at home for better speech and language development!

Functional Words in Early Language Development

When babies start talking, they usually produce nouns first (ex. “mama”, “doggy”, etc.). The average age a baby says their first word is around 1 year old. Hearing the nouns that babies produce helps caregivers know what they are attending to and what interests them.

By 18 months old, a shift occurs and children begin to produce more verbs than nouns (“go”, “eat”, etc.).

The average age a child says their first sentence is around 2 years old. This increase in verb production indicates that children are beginning to understand that words can be used to connect nouns and actions.

Researchers found that although nouns were acquired earlier than verbs, there was a steeper decline in noun production from 2 years to 3 years for the SLI group.

In other words, nouns were acquired early on but there was a greater loss of nouns over time. Verbs, on the other hand, were produced at lower levels than nouns throughout the study but there was not as great of a decline from 2 years to 3 years. This suggests that even though nouns may be acquired earlier, they are not as stable or durable as verbs when it comes to long-term development.

If you are worried about your child’s language development, check out Children’s Language Development Milestones Chart to learn more about normal language development.

Book a free consultation to learn more about functional words.

Functional Words are Usually Verbs

For toddlers, it is more important to prioritize learning verbs vs. nouns because they are more likely to be understood and can get their needs met more easily. The difference between noun and verb is that verbs are also easier to understand than nouns. For example, the verb “jump” is easier to understand than the noun “elephant.” Another example is the verb “eat” is easier to understand than the noun “food.”

nouns vs. verbs

What is a verb?

Verbs are words that describe an action. For example, some common verbs include “run,” “jump,” and “eat.”

What is a noun?

Nouns are words that name a person, place, thing, or idea. These include words such as “dog” “ball,” and “table.”

Why is it more important for your toddler to learn verbs before nouns?

Even though nouns may be acquired earlier, they are not as stable or durable as verbs when it comes to long-term development. The difference between noun and verb is because verbs are more important for communication and serve a vital purpose in early language development. Therefore, it is more beneficial for your child to focus on learning verbs vs. nouns in early speech and language development. This will help them get their needs met more easily and decrease frustration.

For early learners, goals for speech therapy include introducing verbs vs. nouns. When your child is beginning to talk, it is more important for them to learn verbs such as “jump” and “run.” These are called functional words because they help us communicate our needs and wants. It can also be used in different contexts.

Now, teaching nouns vs. verbs is NOT that wrong. However, it limits the child to use words in more context. For example, the verb “jump” can be used when your child wants to jump on a trampoline or in the car. The verb “run” can be used when your child wants to run outside or in the park.

Difference between noun and verb

The Use of Verbs with Nouns

When toddlers learn the difference between noun and verb, they are one step closer to being able to put together two-word phrases. These phrases are important for communication because they allow toddlers to express more complex ideas. For example, verbs with nouns such as “ball jump” are more complex than just the word “jump.” This is because it tells us what the child wants to do with the ball.

Noun phrases are more difficult than verb phrases for children with SLI. This may be because nouns are more abstract than verbs and require children to hold two pieces of information in their mind at the same time (the noun and the modifier).

Nouns phrases such as “the big red ball” are also important for communication. However, they are not as important as verbs with nouns because they do not tell us what the child wants to do with the noun. For example, the noun phrase “the big red ball” does not tell us if the child wants to jump with the ball or throw the ball.

10 Common Functional Words to Teach Your Toddler

As parents, you may be wondering what words to teach your babies first. A good place to start is with functional words. Functional words are those that help your toddlers communicate their daily needs. These are the first words they learn as they serve an important purpose in communication such as requesting and expressing what they want without easily getting frustrated.

The following are ten functional words that are common goals for speech therapy and why they are important:

1. No

No can be hard for parents to hear. However, it is one of the most important words to teach your toddler to learn and understand the concept of boundaries. They can also express their preference such as choosing what food to eat without getting frustrated why mommy gave her a cucumber instead of milk!

2. More

More indicates a desire for more of something. It can be used to request more food, drink, or anything else that your child may want. An example of how this word can be used is when you are eating and your child needs “more” food.

3. Mine

This word helps toddlers understand the concept of ownership and can be used to request items that they want. It is also a useful word for communicating with others about what belongs to them without whining.

4. Up

Toddlers like to be carried right? Instead of pulling your clothes to indicate the desire to go up, teaching them to say UP can be used to request. It can also be used to ask for something to be handed to them or to indicate a desire to move something else.

5. Down

If toddlers want to be carried, they also want to go down, especially when at the park! DOWN indicates an immense desire to go down or to move something down.

6. Come

When mommy plans to go to the grocery, your toddler might want to go and ride in the car with you! COME is important for communication because it indicates to request someone to come closer, to ask someone to come with you, or indicate a desire for something else to come closer.

7. Go

READY, SET, GO! GO is important for communication can be used to give directions. It is also a very versatile word to use as a command, an exclamation, and more.

8. Stop

When you tickle your toddler, they may start to squirm and say “Stop!” This is a way of teaching them the concept of personal space and boundaries, as well. It is also a good way to show them that we need to respect the wishes of others.

9. Help

If the desired toy is out of reach, your child may need assistance to get what they want. They might cry out of frustration or get a chair to reach for it. Yikes, that’s dangerous. That’s why it is important to teach HELP for them to request help when they need help with something when they see someone else who needs help or to ask for help in general.

10. Please

Please is a magic word. It can help you get what you want from others, including your toddler. It also shows that they are polite and respectful.

These are just a few examples of functional words that are important for early language development. Many other words can be added to this list, but these ten are a good place to start. You can support the development of functional words by teaching them in context and using them frequently in everyday conversation.

Tips on How to Teach Functional Words at Home

Now that we know the common functional words you need to teach your child first and the difference between nouns and verbs in early language development, here are tips on how to apply them at home.

Goals for speech therapy

  1. Sing action songs! Songs like “Wheels on the Bus” are a great way to teach your kids new verbs. Not only will they have fun singing along, but they’ll also be learning important language skills. Try incorporating some of these songs into your daily routine and watch your little ones transform into little linguists in no time!

Here are a few other action songs that are sure to get your kids moving and learning:

  1. “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” – This classic nursery rhyme is perfect for teaching your kids about verbs like “crawl” and “climb.”

  2. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” – This timeless tune is perfect for teaching your kids about rowing and other water-related verbs.

  3. Encourage your child to use verbs vs. nouns to request. For example, if they want a snack, have them use the verb “ask” or “give” instead of just reaching for it. This will help them understand how to use their words in a functional way.

  4. Read books that contain a lot of action words. This will help your child learn new verbs and how to use it in sentences. Books such as “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham” are examples of books that can teach your kids some actions. When reading a book, it is important to act out the action songs to help your child understand and learn the new verbs faster.

  5. Use toys that have moving parts to teach verbs. For example, you can use a toy car to teach the verb “drive” or a toy train to teach the verb “chug.”

  6. Take your child for a walk! Not only is this great exercise, but you can also point out all the different things that you see along the way. This is a perfect opportunity to teach your child about verbs such as “walk,” “look,” and “point.”

  7. Encourage your child to use verbs when they are playing. For example, if they are playing with a ball, encourage them to throw or catch the ball. If they are playing with blocks, encourage them to build or knock down the towers. You can also try these activities at home to improve language development at home.

  8. As your child begins to learn verbs with nouns, it is important to continue using both in everyday conversation. By frequently using nouns and verbs, you can help your child develop their language skills and improve their communication. Use descriptive words when talking to your child. For example, instead of saying “the dog is big,” say “the dog is huge” or “the dog is enormous.” This will help your child understand the meaning of the word “huge” better.

Common Goals for Speech Therapy

If your child is having difficulty acquiring nouns and verbs, a speech therapist for toddlers can help. In speech therapy, we target verbs before nouns as early goals because they are functional words. Functional words are important for better communication. Eventually, a speech therapist will work on developing your child’s vocabulary and teaching them how to use nouns and verbs in sentences. They can also help develop your child’s ability to understand and use two-word phrases.

Some common goals for speech therapy include:

  1. Increasing your child’s understanding of nouns and verbs

  2. Teaching your child new nouns and verbs

  3. Helping your child use nouns and verbs in sentences

  4. Improving your child’s ability to understand two-word phrases

If you think your child would benefit from speech therapy, feel free to contact Better Speech. We would be happy to answer any questions you may have! At Better Speech, we offer online speech therapy services convenient for you and tailored to your child's individual needs. Our services are affordable and effective - get Better Speech now.


About the Author

Mikee Larrazabal

I am a Speech-Language Pathologist with 14 years of experience working with children and adults who have communication difficulties. I completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Health Science at Cebu Doctors' University and have been helping people overcome their communication challenges ever since.

I have worked with individuals of different ages, including toddlers, preschoolers, school-aged children, adults and seniors. I'm passionate about speech therapy and take great satisfaction in helping people overcome their communication challenges and improve their lives through better communication skills. In my spare time I like reading books, going hiking in nature and taking care of my dog Locas.



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