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Children demonstrate the ability to understand and convey thoughts through both nonverbal and verbal expression.

Expressive language refers to how children express their needs, wants, and feelings to others through nonverbal and verbal communication. Communication begins at birth and includes reflexive cries, gaze aversion, and body language.1 After four months of age, children transition to using additional sounds as they build the capacity for verbal language. They produce different types of cries and experiment with sounds such as cooing, laughing, babbling, and even yelling.

Around nine to 12 months, children begin to point in order to communicate purposefully. They use combinations of gestures and vocalizations to indicate interest in objects and people.2 These are all precursors to the words that will emerge between 12 and 15 months.

In the second year of life, children go from using first words to combining words. First words are usually two-syllable utterances such as “baba” for bottle. These are words for people and objects that are meaningful in children’s lives. Often, caregivers are the only people who can make out these words as they emerge within children’s context. Children also utter two-word sentences to convey meanings such as, “Daddy gone,” or “Me cookie.” By 36 months, children produce short, clear sentences to make statements, ask questions, and engage in back-and-forth exchanges.3

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to experiment with sounds and other various forms of communication to show interest in and exert influence on their environment.

Indicators for children include:

  • Cries to signal hunger, pain, or distress
  • Uses smiles and other facial expressions to initiate social contact
  • Coos and uses physical movements to engage familiar others
  • Babbles and experiments with all types of sounds (two-lip sounds: “p,” “b,” “m”)
  • Combines different types of babbles
  • Begins to point to objects in his/her environment

Strategies for interaction

  • Engage in simple turn-taking, e.g., make a cooing sound after the child has made a similar noise
  • Repeat the babbling sounds that the child makes; encourage the child to make more sounds
  • Create a language-rich environment; communicate with the child throughout the day about what is happening
  • Take into account the home language of the child and try to use familiar words in that particular language

7 months to 18 months

Children’s language progresses from babbling to utterances and to first words. Toward the end of this age period, babbling decreases as children begin to build their vocabulary.

Indicators for children include:

  • Babbles using the sounds of the home language
  • Creates long, babbled sentences
  • Uses nonverbal communication to express ideas, e.g., waves bye-bye, signs “more” when eating
  • Utters first words; these words are for familiar objects and people, e.g., “mama,” “bottle”
  • Names a few familiar objects in his/her environment
  • Uses one word to convey a message, e.g., “milk” for “I want milk”

Strategies for interaction

  • Acknowledge and respond to the child’s communication attempts
  • Expand on what the child is saying, e.g., “Milk? You want to drink milk?”
  • Show appreciation when the child is attempting to use new words
  • Talk and read with the child often; use words and books that reflect the home culture
  • Narrate what is occurring throughout the child’s day, e.g., “Let’s sit down and have lunch”

16 months to 24 months

Children continue to experiment with language and expand their vocabulary as they begin to speak in two-word utterances.

Indicators for children include:

  • Uses more words than gestures when speaking
  • Repeats overheard words
  • Has a vocabulary of approximately 80 words
  • Begins to use telegraphic speech, consisting of phrases with words left out, e.g., “baby sleep” for “The baby is sleeping”

Strategies for interaction

  • Continue to engage in conversations with the child about topics meaningful to him or her
  • Encourage the child when speaking and elaborate on what the child is saying
  • Acknowledge and extend what the child is expressing, e.g., “Yes, I see the baby; the baby is sleeping”

21 months to 36 months

Children communicate about present themes and begin to combine a few words into minisentences to express needs and wants.

Indicators for children include:

  • Speaks in three-word utterances, e.g., “I want ball”
  • Begins to use pronouns and prepositions, e.g., “He took my toy” and “on the table”
  • Makes mistakes, which signal that he or she is working out complex grammar rules
  • Uses adjectives in speech, e.g., “blue car”
  • Uses simple sentences, e.g., “I want the yellow cup”
  • Has a vocabulary of more than 300 words

Strategies for interaction

  • Model but do not correct when the child is speaking, e.g., “Oh, Mommy went to work?” after the child expresses “Mommy goed work”
  • Speak in simple sentences when communicating with the child
  • Allow children to play and experiment with language through songs and word rhymes
  • Expand on what the child is saying, e.g., “The baby is crying; maybe she is hungry?” after the child expresses, “The baby is crying.”

Real World Story

Christina is 36 months of age and is learning both English and Spanish. Currently, she is playing with a doll in the pretend play area. She is rocking a doll, whispering, “Shhh, no cry.” Her caregiver, Jennifer, is sitting next to her observing while she plays. Jennifer asks, “Why is the baby crying?” Christina replies, “She hungry.” Jennifer then says, “What can you give her so she is not hungry anymore?” Christina walks over to the pretend kitchen and grabs a toy bottle and holds it up, “Leche. Quiero milk.”

Christina pretends to give the baby a bottle and continues to rock the doll for a short time. She pretends to burp the doll and then hugs and kisses it. Christina stands up and removes the blanket and exclaims, “Baby needs diaper.” She undresses the doll and says, “Shirt off.” She pretends to change the diaper and puts the play clothes back on. Jennifer continues to observe Christina play and a few minutes later says, “Christina, in five minutes we are going to clean up and get ready to wash our hands.” Christina looks up, and then continues to play with the doll. “Three minutes left and then we will clean up,” Jennifer says. Christina mutters, “Clean up.” After time is up and Jennifer lets Christina know, Christina begins to put toys away and continues to say, “Clean up.” Once she is done cleaning up, Christina runs over to the sink, pushes her sleeves up, and washes her hands.

THIS EXAMPLE ILLUSTRATES different forms of language use, and caregiver strategies to further develop skills. Christina uses private speech, or self-directed talk, in two instances, both when she is undressing the doll and when she is cleaning up. Private speech helps her walk through the task that she is engaged in. In addition to private speech, Christina demonstrates an example of code-switching when she says, “Leche. Quiero milk.” (Milk. Want milk.) She combines English and Spanish in one sentence, without losing the consistency of the grammatical structure. Jennifer supports Christina’s language development by asking her open-ended questions in order to extend interactions.

Jennifer’s advance warning before transitions supports Christina’s emotional regulation because she now has time to prepare for a change in activity. Christina demonstrates the use of logic both when she follows the appropriate steps to change the doll’s diaper and when she grabs the milk bottle to feed the (hungry) doll. Finally, Christina demonstrates cultural and social conventions by kissing and hugging the doll, in order to communicate feelings.

Discover how this Real World Story is related to:


  1. Hulit, Lloyd M. & Howard, Merle R. (2002). Born to Talk, Volume 1. Boston, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Hulit, Lloyd M. & Howard, Merle R. (2002). Born to Talk, Volume 1. Boston, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. Hulit, Lloyd M. & Howard, Merle R. (2002). Born to Talk, Volume 1. Boston, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon.

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Reviewed: 2012