Count Those Words!

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “How many words should they have?” Let’s take a deep dive here and go into vocabulary development by age.

Why I don't use "Milestones"

As you may know by now, I am a big advocate for starting early. For this reason, I’ll be reporting averages, not milestones which you might hear about from your pediatrician.


What is the difference? You might ask. Well, many speech-language pathologists prefer to use averages as their reporting number because it is at the 50% mark. This means if there were a line of 100 children, we’d be the 50th person in line. With “milestones” these are markers where 90% of children have mastered the skill. This means everyone but those last 10 children in the line of 100. I report on the average range because we’d like to catch the delay before we get this far behind.


Now that we have the reasons behind the number of words your child should have by when, let’s get to the actual numbers!


12 months: Let’s start with their first birthday. By this time a child should have roughly 5 words or signs.


18 months: Six months later, we’re looking at 8-10 words and/or signs!


24 months: By their second birthday, they should have roughly 200 words/ signs and are now COMBINING 2 words!


36 months: At three-years-old, you likely can’t keep track of their words and signs anymore. They have 1,000+ words and are combining 3 words to create little phrases and sentences.


How to figure out how many words your toddler has:

  1. Get out a notebook or a spreadsheet and create (2) columns, one for words/sounds and one for signs

  2. Write down every word, sound, or sign you hear throughout the week. This doesn’t have to be from memory or occur in one day. What are they using naturally already?

What counts as a word?


Words are sounds, signs or words that:

  1. They use consistently (i.e. they use the word, sound, or sign more than once)

  2. They use meaningfully (the word, sound, or sign is attached to an object, person, place, or thing)

Important note:


Do not stress if your child does not have the exact number of words listed! These are the average number and are meant to be used as a guide. If your child is close to the average, that’s great! If they are a bit behind, seek out guidance from an SLP or your pediatrician.


Why Vocabulary (i.e. number of words) is Important


Research article 1: This study found the words a child’s primary caregiver used with them at 2-years-6-months, predicted later vocabulary size. “For all children, the number of words primary caregivers directed to them at age 2 ; 6 predicted vocabulary size at age 3 ; 6.”


Research article 2: This study looked at 50 families (long-term) and found that the following predicted later vocabulary development (explained by the informed SLP)


For babies and one-year-olds, talk to your child, and focus on the amount.


If you have a two-year-old in your house, talk to your child, and focus on words.


With three-year-olds, they recommend talking to your child, and focusing on sentences and stories. (This includes answering all “why” questions fully.)


Taking it to the next level:

Once you start tracking the words, signs, sounds, or phrases your child is using, you can start to build upon that. Read below for tips you can use at home. If you are looking for other milestones, get the full 0-7-year guide or get our 1-page, 0-3 checklist here!


How you can help at home:

  1. Talk to them! Make dedicated time each day to focus on vocabulary development, introduce new words during their play with synonyms (big, huge, large, gigantic)! This could be fifteen minutes a day- nothing too crazy!

  2. Create opportunities for them to talk (see clear bin magic)

  3. Make more comments than questions. Making comments reduces the pressure for the child to carry the interaction. By making comments you are also giving them examples of things they can say! A rule of thumb I use is 3 comments for every 1 question.

Wrapping it up


We learned

  • The average number of words at each stage from 0-3-years-old.

  • How to keep track of your child’s words (a word log!)

  • The importance of vocabulary development

  • How to increase vocabulary at different ages at home!

As always, if you’re concerned with your child’s speech and language, reach out to an SLP in your area! To learn more about how to get speech for your toddler, click here.

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