Language Basics: How Many Words?

Hi friends! Today I am bringing you the third edition of our ongoing Language Basics series. We’ve talked about receptive and expressive language, that language is different than speech, and the importance of social language. Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, I can start answering questions you have about your child’s communication skills. Today we are going to start talking about vocabulary. Words, plain and simple. How many, what kinds, and when to worry. If you are interested in early language development, this is a post you NEED to read. But be prepared- you may be a bit surprised at what I have to say!

Language is More Than Vocabulary: How Many Words should my Toddler Have?

Probably the number one question I hear from parents is “My child is xx months old and has xx (number) of words. Does he/she need speech therapy?”

Well friends, I wish I could tell ya based on that information. But it’s just not that easy.

“But you’re a speech therapist,” you might say. “Don’t you have a chart for that or something?”

And what I want to say, although I won’t, is that those charts are the bane of my existence. Why? Because, folks…

Language is not just vocabulary.

If you learn anything from this series, I want it to be this. **The number of words your child is saying (or isn’t saying) is NOT the only indicator of how well his/her communication skills are developing.** In fact, just focusing on the number of words your child has can be very misleading.

What I want to know instead:

Is your child able to communicate his wants and needs, and how? He doesn’t have to just be using words. Pointing, gesturing, sign language, facial expressions, eye gaze (looking at you, then looking at what he wants), non-word sounds or noises- all of these are part of communication. It’s important to know which, if any, of these your child is using instead of or in addition to words.

Does your child use communication for different reasons? Is your child able to tell you when he wants something? Does he protest when he doesn’t want an object or action?  Does he call for your attention when you aren’t focusing on him? Does he show you things he is interested in (not because he wants you to get it for him, just to share the experience with you)? I need to know if your child communicates for social reasons or only to get something he wants/needs.

How does your child play with toys? Is he playing with toys appropriately? Does he use them to pretend? I have an entire post devoted to early play and language that is coming soon, but you can learn SO much about language readiness by looking at how a child plays!

If your child is using words:

What types of words is he using? Names of objects? Actions? Descriptive words?

Does your child use words functionally and for different purposes? Ok, this one is the biggie. I want to see your child using the words he has in his vocabulary in a variety of different ways. Think of the words in your child’s vocabulary as tools in a tool chest. The tool chest may be full, but if you don’t know how to use the tools to fix things, they are a big waste of money. Language is the knowledge of how to use the tools. I want your child to be able to use his words, whether he has five or 5oo, to get his needs met, to call for attention, to protest, to share experiences with people in his life, and all the other things language is good for. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game. But just remember- until you know how to use the tools, the tools aren’t worth a darn thing. Same goes with words!

And here’s another biggie: I don’t care if your child knows his letters/numbers/colors/shapes.

“What?? You don’t care?? That’s a bit harsh!” Maybe, but it’s the honest truth. Until your child has a grasp of functional language, early academic vocabulary is just taking up space in the toolbox. It is tempting to get sucked into the trap of pushing that vocabulary knowledge on your tiny tot. After all, everyone else is doing it! And it may be what you feel comfortable teaching. But don’t give in. Your child will benefit much more at this stage from face-to-face interactions with you in a meaningful, everyday setting. I promise not to leave you hanging here. I’ll show you what I mean very soon. But stop focusing on the academics for now. Give them language, and the rest will come!

So, in summary:

I am more concerned about a child with 100 words that is not using them for a variety of purposes than I am about a child (the same age) with ten words who is using them functionally (to get needs met, socially interact and share experiences, etc.) along with gestures, gaze, and non-speech sounds.  Now, I’m not saying words aren’t important. But words don’t tell the whole story! They are only a part of the big picture of a person’s ability to communicate.

I have MUCH more to say about this topic in the works, along with practical tips for you to use with your child. And I’ll talk more about those blasted charts, too, and give you the skinny on the ones I find most helpful. So stay tuned!

If you’ve missed any of the posts in this series, click here to view the entire collection!

Still have concerns?

If you are still have questions about your little one’s speech and language skills, here is an excellent post from the awesome Katie at Playing With Words 365 with some guidelines on when you should consult a licensed speech-language pathologist.

When Should I Be Concerned About My Toddler’s Speech and Language Development?


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  1. Thank you sooooo much for sharing these posts. I’m finding them so interesting!
    I’m a primary teacher with some experience of working with children with speech, language and communication difficulties and have also worked alongside many speech and language therapists in the past but my interest in these posts stems from my 20 month old little one – a whole new perspective for me and absolutely fascinating to watch. He isn’t saying too many words at the moment (that I can clearly make out) but boy can he communicate effectively!

    • Stephanie says:

      I’m so glad you are finding these posts interesting, Jan! Isn’t it funny how even when you have worked with kids for years, having your own children gives you a whole new perspective? That’s totally true for me, too!

  2. This is a wonderful post! As the parent of a child who (for who knows what reasons) chose not to really talk until he was over two, I find all your other emphases very interesting. He was always an amazing communicator, but he never said much. At 3 1/2 now, he has a wonderful vocabulary, talks *all* the time, and still has great expressions and sounds! He may have a few speech issues (like dropping an “s” at the beginning of most words), but his vocabulary is growing by leaps and bounds. Anyways (sorry for the novel!), thanks for a great post!

    • Stephanie says:

      Never apologize for leaving a “novel,” Carla! I love reading the thoughts of all of my readers- the longer, the better 😉 It just goes to show you that the checklists and charts that narrow it down to just words really do miss the boat. Thanks so much for reading!

  3. AMAZING series!! I am following it closely as it really answers so many questions and explains a lot of concerns I’ve had on the parenting path. Thank you so much for this!

    • Stephanie says:

      Thank you so much, Chelsey! You are already such an awesome mom that it feels great that I can help you in any way at all! I appreciate the sweet comment, friend 😉

  4. Thank you for this post. This is also very true for my 21 month old daughter whose facial expressions and non-verbal language speaks volumes even if she doesn’t! I am also a literacy teacher and throwing out the colors/shapes routine is something I encourage too. It is so easy to get caught up in what we think children should know but if it not meaningful what’s the point? Looking forward to reading more :-)

    • Stephanie says:

      You said it, Lauren!! Our society unfortunately has it all backwards right now. Hopefully that will change some day!

  5. Great post, Stephanie. Your expertise is so helpful. My husband, whom I consider to be extremely intelligent, didn’t say much until he was four. And isn’t it true that Mozart was a quiet child ? Maybe sometimes those smart little minds are just taking everything in…

    • Stephanie says:

      Absolutely! Interestingly, it has been speculated that Mozart (along with several other great minds in history) may have had high functioning autism/Asperger’s Syndrome. Of course there is no way of knowing for sure, but it’s food for thought!

  6. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing. My two year old son started speech therapy just before Christmas. I was an elementary teacher before becoming a stay at home mom and was so frustrated that I could teach 5 year olds to read, but couldn’t teach my kid to talk. Since beginning therapy, his word count has more than doubled, but even before that he used his limited words along with signs and hand gestures to communicate with me. I (almost) always know what he’s trying to say. One of his words is “stop”. He uses that word when he’s playing with cars & trucks, when we’re walking with the stroller, or to tell me he wants me to stop changing his diaper. I’m a worrier by nature, but this post helped put my mind at ease.

    • Stephanie says:

      I’m so glad I can help you feel a little better, Melissa! It’s hard not to worry- I’m guilty of it even when I know better!

  7. You smarty! Language development is one of the few things I’m NOT concerned about with my kids, but maybe it’s because I haven’t been counting and stressing out about how many words they know. More likely, it’s because they’re chatty beyond belief. These posts of yours are so interesting though, because it’s refreshing to hear your creative approach.

  8. This was so so helpful!! It really gave me piece of mind since my little guy DEFINITELY communicates his needs, wants, emotions, excitement in ways other than words (along with some words). I don’t feel quite so worried about his language development now. I’ll be anxiously awaiting more in this awesome series!!

    • Stephanie says:

      Awesome, Krissy! You’re another mom who is so great that I’m happy I have anything helpful to say to ya 😉 Thank you so much for reading and putting a smile on my face!

  9. This is amazing advice! I’m sharing this post with my parent friends because I have heard many of the same concerns from some of them. Thanks so much!

  10. From one SLP to another…..great info. We think alike. I’ve been passing your site on to other therapists and parents.

    • Stephanie says:

      Yay! So happy to hear from another SLP on this one! Glad I’m not all alone- this is one of my biggest soapboxes 😉

  11. This is interesting. One of my twins is so good with memorizing words but is almost 4 months behind her sister in actual communication/language skills. The other twin didn’t make much remembering her “first 100 words” but has always been a strong communicator from a young age and right now can deliver some very emphatic 7 word sentences

    So just like you pointed out, one knows the words but not how to use them well and the other is the exact opposite.

    I do think both are different but equally important skill sets. I’m hoping to learn how I can nurture their obviously different language strengths and help with the development areas.

    • Stephanie says:

      It’s so hard not to compare them, isn’t it? Good for you for being able to figure out their individual strengths and weaknesses. I agree- words are important, but in these early years giving them the tools to use their words should be the priority! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  12. Great post, Stephanie! I’ll be pinning and sharing this series with friends who have concerns about their children’s language development. We certainly had concerns with our oldest, who was very bright and communicative but didn’t use any words at all until almost 2 1/2. Thankfully once she started she caught up quickly and is an extremely verbal 6 year old. These are great tips!

    • Stephanie says:

      Thanks Anna! I appreciate you sharing with other parents- my ultimate goal with this series is to help!

  13. This is really awesome! I really love your tool chest analogy!

  14. You are fantastic! Great job explaining this in a concise but informative manner!! Looking forward to reading your other pieces!!

  15. I agree entirely!!!

  16. Oh wow wee!! I am so, so glad that I came across this! I am a ‘retired’ primary school teacher in Northern Ireland ….. I used to teach the little 4/5 year olds….until I had some kiddies of my own. My little 2 year old has a very limited ‘word count’ until recently and I must confess I was freaking out! Thank you for the reminder that there is so much more to language than just words! I am off now to read your earlier posts on this topic and will wait with great anticipation for future posts!!!!

  17. I agree with you 100%! As an EI SLP, it especially drives me crazy how focused we have become on numbers, letters and colors at such a young age. If a child has no functional words in their vocabulary, than knowing the color red will not do much for them.

  18. Hi Stephanie!

    I’ve been following your posts for a few months now and I find them so informative. Loved your Reggio series! I am an SLP myself and all the points you’ve been hitting with this series are great!! I would love to post your blog on our clinic Facebook page if that’s alright with you. I would love our parents and other therapists to have this information. Early intervention and knowing what you’re looking for is sooooo important!

    Thanks again!

    • Stephanie says:

      Hi Wendy! I’m so glad you are enjoying the series and agree with what I have to say as a fellow SLP! Of course you are welcome to share my blog on Facebook- the more people we can reach, the better! Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  19. Love this series so much! My oldest had some delays and I was so anxious about expectations of others. He’s now catching up and I wish I had something so informative and comforting to get me through that worry part. I’m definitely less stressed with the second kiddo and love the advice/knowledge that you share.

  20. Thank you for this post! I am an EI SLP and I get asked this question all the time. You wrote out exactly what has been rolling around in my head and is a great reference thank you!

  21. KG in Kuwait says:

    Brilliant so true -we have mums who have basically taught their children astrophysics for kids but the child cannot play therefore finds it very hard in a kg classroom where it’s all play. Please talk TO your children not AT them. Don’t worry if he/she can’t count to 10 or recite the alphabet or or or or …. teach them to be 3 !!!!

  22. I seriously almost cried while I read this :) My son had medical issues when he was a baby and is now delayed with speech and language. He’s only 16 months old, but just had an evaluation and was in the 5th percentile. It was so good to see this and know that the number of words are less important then utilizing them…. not that he says any … but also reading about how else they communicate and how important that is was such a relief. I”m going to continue to talk talk talk to him, but now I can look for the other accomplishments with communication and feel success there while waiting and helping him reach the point where he will talk :) THANK YOU so much for sharing this, it means so much to me!

  23. Also, I love what you have to say about academics – I taught preschool at a prestigious private school in our area and after becoming a mommy, LOVED teaching my son all of those things, and he caught on and loved learning them – but my daughter didn’t care at all – I tried and tried to teach her and I was so worried that she didn’t seem to understand – but as soon as SHE was ready, she learned all of the letters and started counting like crazy within a few weeks. – It was a great lesson to me to relax and put the priorities in the right order. She didn’t need to know her abcs when she was 3 even if my son knew most of his before he was 2 –

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  1. […] Language Basics: More Than Words by Stephanie, fellow SLP and mom to twins, at Twodaloo. Excellent, must read post if you suspect your child has speech/language delays. […]

  2. […] back with another post in our ongoing Language Basics series. Last time we talked about how language is more than just vocabulary, which has already become one of my most popular posts to date, so hop over and read it if you […]