Friday, June 10, 2011

Two Word Phrases: What To Expect and How To Get There

Around 18-24 months, kids reach a very important language milestone: they start putting words together into two-word phrases. This usually happens right about the time they reach a vocabulary of 50 words, and it's important because it often marks the beginning of a language explosion, during which children begin to acquire language rapidly.

The fun thing about two word phrases is that your understanding of a two word phrases is dependent on your knowledge of the situation at hand. As children get older, they can be much more precise about what they are saying because they use longer sentences and grammatical markers such as possessive -s (e.g., daddy's shoe) to clarify their meaning. But when children are dwelling in the land of two-word phrases, one phrase might mean many different things. When my daughter says, "Daddy shoe" for example, it could mean, "Daddy look at my shoe!" or "That's daddy's shoe!" or "daddy take my shoe off," or "daddy my shoe fell off!"  The only way to know which one she means is to look at what she is doing and do our best interpretation (and run the risk of a toddler tantrum if we get it wrong!).

Despite their lack of clarity, there is some predictability to these phrases.  During this phase of language development, most young children will use the following types of two word phrases:
  • Description word + Object (Big bubble)
  • Possessor + Object (My bubble)
  • More + Object (More bubble)
  • All done/gone + Object (All done bubble)
  • Negative + Object (No bubble)
  • Object + Location (Bubble up)
  • Person doing action + Action (Mama Blow)
  • Action + Object (Blow Bubble)
  • Person doing action + Object (Mama Bubble)
As speech-language therapists, we like to look not only at the number of two word phrases that a child is using, but also at the variety.  It's important that children learn to use a wide variety of these types of phrases. Usually this happens all on its own, but some children will get stuck in one type of two-word phrases;for these children, it's our job to help them understand how to use a wide variety of phrases to express their needs and ideas.

There are lots of ways to help children with two word phrases. Here are just a few.
  • You can use expansion on a regular basis. When your child uses one word, put it into one of the above listed two word phrases for him, making sure that the two word phrase you choose is related to the meaning of what he said. This is something all parents can do on a regular basis to give their child's language a boost.
  • You can integrate two-word phrases into the choices you give him. (More bubbles or all done bubbles? Bubbles up or bubbles down? Mama blow or Ben blow?).
  • You can set up motivating situations in which you model and require two word phrases, as I described here, in a post on Joy's Autism blog.  In the post, I suggest using pictures to help children understand that each word has meaning, but pictures are optional. They work best for children with a diagnosis of autism, children who are highly visual learners, or children who haven't responded to other methods of increasing their use of two-word phrases. 
Looking for more information on two-word phrases?


      1. This is AWESOME information. Thanks for not just telling us about two-word phrases but also giving us some practical ideas on how to help this along. My 6-year-old mostly non-verbal son with Down syndrome and suspected apraxia just signed red truck spontaneously, so this info is just what I needed.


      2. My 36 year old brain damaged son has a vocabulary of 5 words and he has never connected two words before. Though the words were said several seconds apart it shows he does have knowledge of the situation. He does understand a person needs to act and there is an action the person must do to get what he wants. Therefore, his language has advanced from a 9 months old to about 18 months. It is so exciting!