Help your toddler to communicate with you.

Toddler Listening Skills

by Erica Loop

When you tell your toddler to "Stop poking the cat" or "Don't touch that cookie" and she doesn't seem to listen, don't conclude that she has some sort of communication disorder. While some kids do have developmental delays, understanding the typical progression of toddler listening skills can make the difference between unnecessary worry and knowing that your little one is just in a learning stage.

Receptive Language Skills

Receptive language includes skills that go deeper than just listening. While your toddler might have the ability to attentively look at and listen to you, he might not fully understand what you're saying. According to the child development experts at PBS Parents, a child's receptive vocabulary includes the words that he recognizes. For example, a 2-year-old toddler can understand roughly 500 to 700 words and a 30-month-old understands up to 900. If your young toddler's receptive skills seem lacking, the pros at PBS Parents note that most kids will learn one to two new words each day between 2 and 3 years of age. It's likely that your toddler's receptive vocabulary will primarily include words for common objects and people that he sees often, including a chair, cup or mommy.


Telling your toddler to, "Go to the chair, get your coat, bring it back, put it on, get your backpack, put your toy bear in it and wait by the door" isn't likely to get you the results that you are looking for. Your toddler's inability to follow multi-step sequence of directions doesn't mean that her listening skills are lacking. Toddlers typically only have the ability to listen to and follow one- to two-step directions. Instead of asking your toddler to follow a lengthy list of steps, go with a simple request such as, "Please put your cup on the table."


Answering your questions or requests with a verbal response isn't the only way that your toddler will communicate. Although you might think that a non-verbal response to a question means that your toddler isn't listening to you, stop and take a look at what he's doing before you make any assumptions. For example, if you ask, "Where is your foot?" and your toddler looks down but clams up, follow his gaze. Toddlers often use gestures, whether facial or by pointing, to show they are listening. If your toddler is still less than verbal, encourage him to point to objects that you name to show that he is listening to the words.

Improving Skills

Whether your toddler's listening skills are at the top of the charts or you think that they aren't quite adequate, parent-child activities to improve her communication abilities are key to her development. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association suggests that adults ask questions that go beyond a "yes" or "no" answer. This shows you that she is truly listening to you and makes her think more about what you are actually saying. instead of getting an easy out by shaking her head "yes" or "no," your toddler must actually listen to your words and process them. For example, asking her, "Do you want to go on the swings or on the slide?" while at the park allows her to listen to a more complex sentence, think about what you asked her and use problem-solving skills to come up with an answer. You can also point out new objects as you go throughout your day. Build your toddler's vocabulary as she listens to words, that are new to her, while at the grocery store, on the playground or at home.

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.

Photo Credits

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