Expressive Vocabulary: Word Counts, What Counts… What Can I Do?

“How many words should my child be saying?” is one of the common questions parents and guardians ask speech-language pathologists. Similar to the acquisition of other milestones of sitting up, babbling, basic concepts, and walking, vocabulary learning skills vary from one child to another. Milestones are what approximately 90% of children are able to do at a certain age. Knowing approximately where your child’s expressive vocabulary “should” be may cause undue worry and stress. 

Learning Expressive Vocabulary



12 months

2-6 words

15 months

10 words

18 months

50 words

2 years

200-300 words

3 years

1,000 words

4 years

1,600 words

(Linguisystems, 2008).

For parents with children that have delays in expressive vocabulary, it may be difficult to see these numbers. It’s okay! The earlier a child starts early intervention, the more opportunities there are to shrink that gap and set your child up for success! Also, remember that children develop at their own rate, so there are many children who will have smaller or larger vocabularies.



So What's a Word?

So, what counts as a word, in terms of expressive vocabulary? A word is counted if a child can utilize it consistently and intentionally to refer to someone or something. As children are developing their speech sounds, they are not going to sound exactly the way adults produce them. Words that also “count” for these metrics include word approximations, sound effects, animal sounds, signs, and fun words!


  • Word approximations are when children express words by utilizing parts of a word to describe it, such as “ba” for bottle or “muh” for more.
  • Sound effects include vehicle and movement sounds, like “boom”, “beep-beep”, “vroom-vroom”, or “choo-choo!”
  • Animal sounds examples are “oink”, “moo”, “quack”, “meow”, “woof”.
  • Common early signs are “eat”, “more”, “all done”, and “thank you”.
  • Fun words, or exclamatory words, are simple words that are easier for children to imitate, such as “wee”, “yay”, “uh oh”, “whoa”.

Improving Your Child’s Expressive Vocabulary

How can you help improve your child’s expressive vocabulary? For toddlers and young children, learning occurs mostly through play experiences. Here are some ways you can facilitate such instances:

  1. Follow your child’s lead! This means you select topics or play with toys that are of interest to your child. It is so important and take a step back and see what’s important and interesting to them—it makes play time more fun and enjoyable!
  2. Get on the floor and sit face-to-face with your child. When are you face-to-face and closer to your child’s level. It helps your child meet your gaze, watch your facial expressions, and your mouth movements.
  3. Utilize some verbal routines during play and daily routines. Verbal routines allow for tons of repetition and can make vocabulary become more predictable. For example, you can push a car together and practice “Ready, set…. go!” or “1, 2, 3…go!” At every mealtime, you can say, “Time to eat eat eat!” Before bed, you can say, “Nighty night, sleep tight!”
  4. Always respond to attempts to communicate. This allows your child to feel heard and more encouraged to continue to communicate, whether they use words, sounds, or gestures.
  5. Using exaggerated intonation and facial expressions helps your child notice and become more aware of the sounds and faces you make. For example, pretending to cry while singing, “The babies on the bus go… wah wah wah” is SO much more engaging than just singing the words without movements!
  6. Expand your child’s language by using the +1 routine. When your child says one word, you add another. For example, if you child says car, instead of saying “car, please”, you can describe attributes or indicate possession: “fast car”, “garage car”, “go car”, “my car”. Vary the type of word you add!
  7. Be silly! A great way to get your child to expand language is to be silly. You can say, “Oh! I like your blue cup!” when it is clearly a yellow cup. If your child does not correct you, you can say, “Oh no! It’s a yellow cup! So silly! Yellow yellow yellow cup!”
  8. Model language every day. Just as you model pragmatics, model expressive vocabulary. Self-talk through normal routines. For example, when it’s time to wash hands, you can say, “Uh oh, dirty hands! Time to wash our hands! Soap time! Water on, wash wash wash, water off! All done!”

Remember, children learn through exposure. The more words you speak around your child, the more expressive vocabulary they will learn and use!

About the Author

Ali Navia is an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist who provides speech therapy services to children and families throughout Philadelphia. Ali is experienced in working with all populations, from early intervention to skilled nursing facilities. She primarily works with children with developmental language delays and various diagnoses. Ali enjoys creating individualized resources for each child’s learning style and interests to make communication fun, meaningful and engaging. She is passionate about helping families optimize their child’s ability to communicate and is experienced in supervising younger clinicians seeking certification in SLP. Ali is PROMPT-trained, PECS Level 1-trained and SOS feeding-trained.

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