first words

How Many Words Can My Child Say? What Counts As A Word

Posted on
November 29, 2022
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Getting to know your child's first words, can be fun, but they can also leave you feeling unsure. For the first few years, you may be overthinking every babble and sound that your child may be expressing. In this blog, we'll explore more about what counts as a word, how you can encourage development and game ideas.

Noting that there's so much variability at these ages in development

  • At 6 months:  A baby should start babbling for attention and make different sounds to indicate either if they're happy or upset.
  • At 12 months: The babbles should start to sound like real words. You might see the emergence of first words. These words will be closely related to the child's own words and functional needs. The child will start to understand their own name and simple commands e.g. ‘come here’ and ‘give me’.
  • At 18 months: A child would be using mostly object names. The child’s vocabulary is typically between 5-20 words. 

Between the ages of 18 months and 2 years a child’s vocabulary starts to multiply and their language learning should really take off. From 18 months, the size of your child’s vocabulary jumps from understanding and using up to 50+ words to over 200+ at two and a half. 

By aged 3-4 years old a child should be able to understand 1000-2000 words and use 800-1500 words. A toddler’s vocabulary is built up of nouns and verbs. At this age a child should be understanding and using simple concepts such as – in, on, under, front and behind. 

What counts as a word?

Clarifying words can be useful to track speech and language development. When your child starts saying words intentionally, in context and consistently, this shows your that your child is expressing themselves on purpose, not by accident. When your child starts talking, they will often use partial words. For example saying, "mo" for more, or "pup" for up. This is very common and okay!

Words that also counts as a word:

  • Sounds (animal and environmental): when your child sees and intentionally to thing or animal, and imitates their sounds, this can count as a word. For example, saying "vroom vroom" for a car, "baa" for a sheep, "meow" for a cat, or "woof" for a dog.
  • Exclamatory words: these words are used in response and/or comments to actions around us. For example, this can include saying "uh oh" if something spills, "wee" when sliding down and "yuck" when they don't like something.
  • Partial words: when your child starts learning to speak, it is common for word errors. However, when they are using these words consistently and intentionally to express their needs and wants, these words fall part of their word bank. For example, when asking for a banana, your child may ask for a "nana" or saying "ba" for ball.

what counts as a word
Encouraging your child's first words

How you can help encourage first words

Your child will learn from your examples, when you talk about things that they are interested and motivated in.

Talk about what your child is doing or interested in. Using simple words and phrases. Feel free to use your child’s favourite character/toy to talk about what they're doing. If your child is playing with the car you could say ‘car driving’.  If they're feeding Peppa Pig, you could say ‘Peppa eating’.

Repeat words often to your child. Your child needs to hear them a number of times before they can say them. This links to understanding of language – a child needs to understand the words before they can accurately use them. For example, if your child points to the food that they want, label it for them. If your child points to a banana, the adult should say ‘banana, that’s a banana’.

Children understand language and apply meaning by picking up on the tone and body language of how a word is said. By sitting face to face with your child they can pick up on those nonverbal cues to help them add meaning to the word. Try to use simple gestures and exaggerate meaning with your voice. For example, looking at a car ramp, you could use your voice to demonstrate your voice going down as you label the car going down.

Always respond positively to your child's attempt to talk giving frequent praise for good talking

Narrate and comment on what your child is doing as it happens so they can connect between the words you say and the things it refers to. When in the bath talk, about the body parts that you're washing.

Games and ideas for first words

  • Putting everyday items into a bag and encouraging the child to pull out one item at a time and name it. Don't worry if your child doesn't name it, as long as you name it. It provides your child with an opportunity to hear that word.
  • Hide toys around the room, encourage your child to find them. Praise them when they have found it, labelling the word for them. Adult: ‘Well done, you found the brush’.
  • Using simple puzzles:  Offer your child two pieces, encourage the child to find one of the items and encourage the child to label it before putting it back into the puzzle.
  • When emptying shopping bags together, encourage your child to name the items that are taken out of the bags and put away. 
  • A task as simple as emptying the washing machine or a dishwasher can be made into a language activity for labelling and naming things. As you pull them out comment e.g. ‘I found a sock’, ‘it's your t-shirt’
  • Giving your child phrases to complete such as ‘ready steady go’ can help a child engage and participate and use words meaningfully. Make sure you say ‘ready steady’ then wait for the child to say ‘go’. If your child doesn't after a long pause, say go for the child and release the toy. Try again on the next turn. 
  • Sing familiar nursery rhymes to your child you can then start to leave a pause to see if your child joins in after a long pause. If they don't say the missing word and then try again. For example ‘incy wincy………. Spider’.

If you would like to learn more about the understand and use of language, as well as tips and strategies to foster communication. We offer clinically backed, parent-led Speech and Language Therapy coaching programs. Our first program is focused on developing language, working towards improving understanding and use of language for children aged one to seven years old across six themed sessions, from Body Parts to Animals and more.

Every week, families have access to coaching videos from our Clinical Director and a set of digital exercises such as flash cards, keywords and colouring sheets. After every week of practice, families can book a video call with their dedicated SLP to review their progress and help them reach their targets. We welcome you to book a free 10 minute call with our speech professional, if you would like advice and hear more about our program.

Debbie Cohen
Speech and Language Therapist
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