As cute as it may be, the funny little pronunciations that your toddler uses might cause you a little distress. Parents may begin to traverse a downward spiral of thought: surely little Billy's inability to correctly pronounce words means that he will end up in speech therapy. Oh, no! The sky is falling! But the good news is that parents can monitor developmental milestones for the child's particular age that can be indicators of a real problem. Unless those warning signs pop up, parents can continue to use easy strategies to teach proper pronunciation to toddlers without sounding any alarm bells.
Model Proper Pronunciation
Most adults have a strong instinct to correct children. Whether it's sitting up straight, chewing with mouth wide open, or using a loud voice indoors -- many people feel it's their duty to stop and correct any little misstep. The reality is that children learn by observation. They can mimic even complex behaviors that they see in adults and especially parents. The most effective way to foster the right pronunciation of words by your toddler is to simply say the words correctly yourself. If your child points out a car and calls it a "caa," simply repeat back to him the word, using the right pronunciation: "That's right Billy, that's a car." Speak with emphasis, but don't over do it. You will notice over time that he will begin to pronounce words properly, even without an adult stopping to explicitly correct them.
Dr. Andrew N. Meltzoff, coauthor of a booked called "The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn," suggests using a type of speech he calls "parentese." Every parent has used it at one time. Think back to the last time you opened your eyes really big, got face to face with your toddler and spoke in a slower, more pronounced fashion. That's parentese. It's not quite the "goo-goo ga-ga" baby talk, but it's the toddler version. Some have said that this is not a realistic way to model language, but researchers like Dr. Meltzoff says that parentese uses "very clear and elongated vowel sounds, so it's a wonderful tutorial for young children." So, don't let anyone discourage you from that foo-foo language -- it actually helps!
It is absolutely indisputable that reading to a child at a young age increases her literacy. It connects objects to words, it fosters her imagination and it encourages a healthy curiosity about the world around her. As she develops the muscles used to speak properly, she will continue to learn speech through the adults around her. Reading to a toddler -- and pronouncing words properly while reading -- is an ideal way to model proper speech. Take a break between pages for some practice. Point out objects that your child may be pronouncing incorrectly and simply ask her what they are. When she answers, reinforce the word by saying, "That's right, Suzy, that's a star." Don't directly correct her, but instead simply re-emphasize what's right. Besides, exhausted parents will find that reading is a great way to calm a child down before a nap, bedtime or when a child is going completely bananas after grandma slipped her another cookie.
Often, your child's sweet little muttering is crystal clear to you, even though others seem baffled. One wonderful way to encourage proper speech and to foster proper pronunciation is to act as a translator. When people struggle to understand your child they may actually discourage him from expressing himself in that moment. You can step in and say, "That's right Billy, grandma is baking cookies!" (Of course, you can't do much about grandma's poor hearing). Usually, grandma will repeat the phrase in parentese, which would then double the number of times the words were spoken correctly in front of the child. As he sees that grandma understands your way of saying it, he will subconsciously attempt to clear things up as time goes on. This is a method of encouragement rather than discouragement, and it will also decrease frustration for all involved.