Activities to Try If Your Toddler Is Not Yet Imitating New Words

When your child is learning new words, you may begin to notice that many words in their early vocabulary begin with the same sounds – “mama, more, moo, mine.” Is that typical in language development? Absolutely! Children learn certain speech sounds first based on ease of production, so it makes sense that the vocabulary they learn first would start with those same sounds. Research shows that the following speech sounds are typically acquired first: /m/, /b/, /p/, /w/, /h/ and /n/. When supporting your child’s language development, it is helpful to focus on words that begin with these sounds in order to encourage imitation. This will help your child develop functional language skills so that they can communicate their wants and needs effectively!

What’s the difference between speech and language?

According to the American Speech and Language Association, “Speech is the way we say sounds and words.” We articulate sounds by moving our mouth, tongue, and lips! We can voice these sounds by moving air through our vocal folds and shaping our mouth to produce different sounds. Modeling the oral movements you want your child to imitate is beneficial in teaching your child early developing sounds, such as /m/, /h/, /n/, /w/, /p/ and /b/ during play activities! These sounds should be in your child’s inventory around two years of age.

According to the American Speech and Language Association, “Language refers to the words we use and how we use them to share ideas and get what we want.” Language includes the meaning of words, how to put words together in a phrase or sentence, and what we should say depending on the context or situation. Teaching children to greet others, to request their wants and needs, and to comment during play are all great ways to support language skills at a young age!

If your child is slow to imitate new words with you, consider the specific speech sounds within the word you are trying to practice. Does it start with a later developing sound that they do not have in their inventory yet? If so, consider rephrasing or choosing another word with the same meaning that is easier to say, such as “milk” instead of “drink.” The easier a word is for your child to say, the more willing he or she will be to imitate!

Practicing at home? Try these activities to encourage imitation!

  • To work on /m/, you may work on modeling “milk” when holding your child’s bottle or cup of milk up near your face before giving it to them during a preferred time. Wait five to ten seconds before handing over the milk to provide your child with an opportunity to imitate. You may practice this during pretend play with a baby doll as well before giving your child the bottle to feed the baby. Materials: milk bottle/cup, parent, baby doll, pretend baby bottle.


  • To work on /h/, practice greetings routinely throughout the day. You may say “hi” to people that you pass by or that come in and out of your home. You may even say “hi” to each of your child’s stuffed animals (i.e. “Hi bunny!”) during play! Materials: People/Stuffed animals.


  • To work on /n/, model the horse sound (i.e. “Neigh!”) frequently during play with a barn. You may also teach your child this while providing a pause during Old MacDonald Had a Farm (i.e. “With a…..(Neigh, Neigh) here and a (Neigh, Neigh) there…”). Materials: Farm Animals/Sing-Alongs.


  • To work on /w/, you may model “wa” or “Wawa” for water during your daily routine. Provide a pause for your child to imitate before giving him/her their water. You may even pair the word for water in sign language to give your child additional cues! To make the sign, you put your thumb and pinky fingers together to make a “W” with your other three fingers up. Tap your pointer finger to your chin to make the sign for “water.”


What if my child will not imitate or make these sounds but will make others?

Don’t worry! Follow your child’s lead and give them the confidence to continue making those sounds. Silly and unexpected sounds and words that are fun for your family are a great way to encourage and support speech sound production skills.

Questions or concerns?

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s early speech sound production skills, please contact us at or 773-332-9439.

Jaclyn Donahue MS, CCC-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist

Reference: What Is Speech? What Is Language? (n.d.). Retrieved from

Photo Credit: Martin Lundgren via

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