Headstart for Life

What should we teach our toddlers?

“He can point to different body parts now!”

“She counted from 1 to 30 yesterday!”

Quite often, parents share about what their child knows. Young children learn at an exponential rate and can demonstrate new skills every month. As parents, there will always be exciting updates regarding their child’s development. Of course, children do not pick up all these skills on their own. They pick up information from the environment and people around them in order to learn. These information may be obtained through their own observation and experience of their world. Sometimes, information may be obtained through direct instruction, such as parents pointing to each other and labeling themselves as “daddy” and “mummy”.


As children progress so quickly, it is also easy to get ahead of ourselves and teach them skills and concepts that are not required of their age yet. These skills tend to have a more academic nature in Singapore’s context. Common ones include the alphabets, numbers, colours, and shapes. As a speech-language pathologist, I have encountered many parents who focus on teaching these when their toddler (1 to 3 years old) has difficulties with basic communication skills. Hence, the child may be able to name all the letters in the alphabet but is not able to tell his mummy that he wants to eat something (even if it is a snack that he frequently eats). While teaching more advanced skills early is quite unlikely to be harmful, we should not forget about skills that are expected for the child’s age too. Some skills may not appear to be directly related to academic work, but can have a big part to play in how children can cope with their daily lives and subsequently learn in school.

This post will focus on skills that are language based. Do note there are other areas to consider when thinking about a child’s development, such as gross motor skills, fine motor skills, cognitive skills and social skills.


Let us have a look at some skills that parents tend to focus on.

1. ABCs

Pointing to the correct letter that is being named (“Point to letter C!”), naming letters (“What letter is this?”), and naming a word that starts with a particular letter (“A is for….?”) are some common ways for children to demonstrate their knowledge of the alphabet. This skill is definitely important for academic success but is not really necessary until preschool age (about 4 to 5 years old).

2. Numbers

While not involving mathematical concepts such as addition (“What is 1 plus 1?”), parents may still attempt teaching quantitative concepts (“Give me 2 biscuits”), as well as identification and naming of numbers. Counting of about 3 objects is not expected until about 3 to 3.5 years old, so don’t focus on teaching this to a 2 year old. You can teach the concept of “one” and “all” instead.

3. Colours

Does “What is this colour?” or “What colour do you want?” sound familiar? Children are expected to understand the words used for some colours (“Take the yellow ball”) around 3 to 4 years old and name colours around 4 years old. It is more important for your toddler to be able to name the items that is being discussed, rather than to name its colour.

4. Shapes

Similar to colours, children are not expected to start identifying shapes until 3 years old. Hence, there is no need to worry if your toddler is not able to “Show me the circle” yet.

My child is on track for his language milestones, do I need to wait?

That is good news! It should be noted that you do not need to wait until the stated ages to start teaching the skills mentioned above. What is more important is to recognise the abilities of each child and work on the skills that are required for his or her age before moving on to other skills. Otherwise, you may find that your child has a shaky foundation for language development.


So, what do I need to teach my toddler?

As toddlers, these young children will be picking up a lot of vocabulary and learning to string words together to form short phrases or sentences. They will also be learning to use this language for many different functions (not just answering questions). Here are some areas that you can focus on.

1. Vocabulary

Teach them the names of things around them. These include the food they eat/drink (bread, juice), the things they use (bottle, spoon), the toys they play with (ball, bubbles, car).

Teach them the names of actions, especially those that they will do frequently (e.g. eat, drink, sleep, walk, run, jump, take).

2. Putting words together

From 2 years old, children are expected to be able to string 2 words together. Teach them how 2 or more words can be used together to communicate more meaning. Use simple language to model the use, especially if your child is still using a lot of single words. For example, “eat biscuit” (instead of just “eat”).

3. Different uses of language

Teach your children to be happy communicators, not just children who know a lot of words. Let them have some opportunities to request (“I want ___”) and ask for help. This can be done by not giving them the food/toys after you simply interpret their nonverbal signals or jumping in to help immediately with a difficult task. You can also let them tell you things on their own (e.g. commenting on something interesting that they are looking at), instead of having a conversation that is directed by adults using questions.

4. Following directions

Let your child help out with little tasks around the house. Simple and safe tasks such as “take your water bottle” and “put the book in your bag” can give them a sense of responsibility and achievement while working on their listening/comprehension skills.


I hope this post has been helpful! Remember, work on skills that your child needs for his/her age before moving on to more advanced skills!




Singapore Pro-Ed Speech and Language Development Chart

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Jia Yue

Jia Yue has a keen interest in working with children with special needs, particularly autism spectrum disorders, whose difficulties may include the areas of speech, language, and social skills. She has been working with children with special needs for the past few years and loves to browse through toy stores for new therapy ideas in her free time.

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