Use Verbal Routines To Help Your Toddler Talk

June 24, 2023

We all know that routines give toddlers a sense of security. Knowing what comes next makes them feel safe and secure (um, hi, me too). But did you know that routines are important for language learning?

What makes a routine?

  • Specific steps. The routine has specific identifiable steps.
  • Same order. The steps begin and end the same way every time.
  • Repetition. The routine is repeated again and again (and again!) so your child learns the steps and words involved.
  • Specific roles. You and your child have specific roles in the routine (e.g., your child's role when getting dressed is to get his shoes). Your child may need help with her role in the beginning, but over time, she will start to imitate and eventually initiate.

Daily routines are robust language learning opportunities because that are naturally repetitive and structured. Mealtime/feeding, bathing, diaper changing, getting dressed, games (peekaboo, swing, chase), and bedtime are all examples of routines that you're probably already doing throughout your day.

What is a verbal routine?

  • Uses the SAME WORDS each time you do the routine.
  • The language is PREDICTABLE so that your child can begin to participate, sequence actions, and understand the words.

How do verbal routines help toddlers talk?

The repetitiveness and predictability of routines facilitate:


How to teach a verbal routine

Before your child can participate or “take his turn”, he needs to know all the steps and words/actions associated with the routine really well. First you will guide your child through all the steps and after they know it (this could be months depending on age), then you will pause and let your child fill in the blank.

Example of a play routine: 1-2-3-Go

Every time we use the swing, I start by holding the swing up and counting 1, 2, 3 (building anticipation) and then saying "Go!" and letting go of the swing. I do this multiple times throughout swing time and it's so much fun for toddlers! In this play routine, my baby's part is to say "Go!" to signal for me to let go of the swing.  He is 9 months when I'm writing this post and he does not yet participate or "take his turn" vocally or verbally, but he does show me he anticipates the drop by smiling and wiggling when I pause. He is still learning all the steps and words associated with the routine. When he is able, he could take his turn by vocalizing "ahhh", a squeal or by filling in the blank with a word approximation of "go" (could be "oh" or "doh") between 10-12 months of age. If I taught him the sign for "go" he could probably do that even sooner as gestures develop before words.

Example of a daily routine: Diaper Changing

When I change my baby's diaper, I lay him down on the changing table or mat wherever I am and I say "it's time to change your diaper". I hold up a diaper and say "diaper". I then play a quick little peekaboo with the diaper in front of my face. I then hand him the diaper to hold and say "diaper", "hold the diaper" (see how many times I've said diaper already!? This repetition is helping him comprehend the word).

I then say "pants off" as I remove pants and "diaper off" as a I remove his diaper. I will label what was in the diaper, so "pee pee diaper" or "you made a poopie". I hold up a wipe and say "let's clean you up" and repeat "wipe wipe wipe" as I clean him off. I say "time to dry off"and "pat pat pat" as I pat him with a cloth. His part in the routine is to hand me the diaper when I say "give mommy the diaper" with my hand out. He is 9 months when I'm writing this post and he does not yet participate or "take his turn" because he is too young to follow directions. That being said, he is learning all the steps and words associated with the routine.

I do hand-over-hand and gently guide his hands to give me the diaper. I then put the diaper on and say "diaper on" and "pants on". Lastly, I finish with "all done" and "diaper in the trash" as I throw it away. I then say "time to sit up" and I put my hands out. He now reaches his hands to mine and I pull him up to sitting.

He will probably start to hand me the diaper before 12 months of age, but by 12 months at the latest (babies should be able to follow simple "give me" directions by 12 months). He also may be able to fill in some blanks with sounds or word approximations between 10-12 months of age.

There's lots of places I could wait to see if he would fill in the blank. For example, he will have learned what a diaper is at this point, so I could say "it's time to change your ________" while holding it up. I could wait when I pull out a wipe and say "let's clean you up. We need a ________". I could wait to see if he would fill in "off"/"on" during undressing/dressing, so "pants off. diaper ________".  

This doesn't happen over night. My baby will have heard these words in this specific context thousands of times by the time he is 12 months, so he will know what comes next when I make an expectant pause. When he is developmentally ready, he will participate!

What routines do you currently use?

Hope that was helpful :) If you're ready to help your baby or toddler talk, I can teach you how! Join me in my course, RaisingLittle Talkers and learn everything you need to know to get your child talking.

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