A child’s ability to understand spoken language develops over time with babies and small children understanding only key words in a sentence.  This builds throughout childhood as children are able to understand more information and longer sentences.  By reducing the amount of language we use we allow children to understand language without help. Children need to understand words before they can use them accurately and meaningfully.


  • When commenting on the things you see around you, use key words e.g. ‘look, a bus!’ rather than ‘Can you see the big double decker bus?’. This will allow your child to hear the most important information.
  • Only give the most important information in your instructions. For example instead of saying “Go get your shoes and put them on, we’re going out” try saying “shoes on”.
  • When it’s time to tidy up don’t say “pick up your toys put them away in the toy box” try saying “toys finished” or “bye toys” as you model putting them away.
  • If your child does something you are unhappy with use simple language to reinforce what you don’t want to happen, say “no hitting” rather than “I’ve told you not to hit other children as they won’t want to play with you”
  • Try to make new and important words stand out by exaggerating them a little
  • Think about using facial expression, gesture, pointing or objects to help your child to know what you are talking about


Building understanding of words

There are lots of fun everyday activities that help to develop understanding of words.

Hide and Seek

Begin with 2 or 3 objects.  Show these to your child and name each one.  Hide the objects in places where they are easily found (e.g. on a low chair, under a table).  Ask your child “where is the spoon?” and then she/he has to find the named object.  Remember to ask for one single item at a time.   If your child enjoys looking at pictures and recognises that these show real objects, then you could use clear, single pictures for the objects and play the game with pictures.

Washing and dressing times

These are ideal situations for helping your child to understand names for parts of the body.  Talk to your child as you help with these activities, for example: ”Your shoes go on your feet” or “Let’s dry your hands” Give your child an article of clothing and say “put it on your head” etc.  Encourage your child to point to parts of his/her body on request, for example: “Where’s your tummy? Or Show me your arms. You may need to use a mirror to help your child become more familiar with parts of the body.

Action games

  • Talking about everyday activities – for example, when you see a dog barking, show your child and say “the dog’s barking”, when daddy’s sleeping, say “daddy’s sleeping” etc.
  • Doll play – you have a teddy and your child also has a teddy.  Say “look, my teddy’s jumping, make your teddy jump” etc. At first, let your child copy the actions you perform with the toy.  Gradually see if your child will start responding to a request only.  For example, “make teddy drink” etc
  • Singing songs with actions – many nursery rhymes are useful here, for example, Jack and Jill, Incy Wincy Spider.  Encourage your child to join in the actions.

If your child is doing well here, try the next set of activities:

Building understanding of short sentences

There are lots of fun everyday activities that help to develop understanding of short sentences.

Hiding an object game

Using a selection of four everyday objects, ask your child to hide one of the objects in one of two chosen hiding places e.g.

Hide the spoon in the cupboard etc

Tidying the table

Let your child help with clearing the table e.g.

Bring Paul’s cup

Bring Anne’s spoon etc

Sorting washing

Let your child help with sorting the washing e.g.

Give me daddy’s socks

Find me Ben’s trousers etc

Cleaning game

Your child cleans the furniture or household items e.g.

Brush the floor

Wash the plate

Dry the spoon etc

Also make this fun by encouraging your child to carry out silly actions e.g.

Brush the spoon etc

Action game

Ask your child to go to various places in different ways e.g.

Hop to the table

Dance to the cupboard etc

If your child is doing well here, try the next set of activities:

Building understanding of longer sentences

There are lots of fun everyday activities that help to develop understanding of longer sentences.

Actions game

Using a choice of toys (e.g. teddy, dolly and a dog) and a choice of furniture (e.g. table, chair and bed), show your child how the toys carry out different actions on the furniture e.g.

Teddy sit on the bed

Dog sleep on the chair

Make this fun by introducing a story-line such as “The toys are being funny today.  Watch what they do!”

Encourage your child to join in.  Then, place the toys in front of your child and give a request e.g.

Make dolly dance on the table

Make the dog jump on the bed

Tidying up game

During the day, make the most of opportunities that arise such as tidying up time.  Make sure that your child has to make three choices e.g. Put daddy’s shoes in the cupboard

You will need to make your child choose between:

  • Shoes and other items that need tidying away
  • Daddy’s shoes and anybody else’s shoes, so there must be other pairs of shoes
  • The cupboard and other places where the shoes could go such as a box

Meal times are also a good opportunity e.g.

Put mummy’s cup in the sink

Put David’s plate on the table etc

If your child cannot do this, then give them some help and describe what you are doing all the time.

Washing toys game

Use a dolly and a teddy, and choice of washing items (e.g. brush, shampoo bottle, toothbrush, face-cloth).  Set up a play situation where the toys have just got up and are getting ready to go out e.g.

Here’s dolly.  She’s just got up.  Let’s wash her face.  Now wash her hands.

Different instructions can then be given, so that your child has to understand three key words

Wash dolly’s face

Brush teddy’s hair etc