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  • Writer's pictureRachel Pessah

How to Expand your Child's Vocabulary Using Routines

Often parents come to their first speech therapy sessions with the idea that they will have to put in a lot of work to help their child's language grow. I am happy to say that this is not the case! Parents are the most important part of early language intervention, however they can build their child's language without adding much extra effort to their days. One of the most effective ways to build language is to incorporate language into your child's everyday activities.


The routine that you pick should be an activity that your child does at least once per day. Before we develop a language goal for the routine your child needs to learn the routine. The best way to teach a routine is to make sure that you complete the same steps in the same order each time. The routine should always start and end the same and you should model the same words each time. Once your child is able to anticipate the next step in a routine, or they are starting to do some of the steps themselves, they are ready for step 2.


The goal will depend on your child's current language level. You want to make sure that you are picking a goal that would be the next step for them (if you are unsure, a speech-language pathologist can help you select the goal). To select a goal, think of a skill that your child has just started to do, but is not doing consistently (use the chart below to help you). For example, if you have heard your child use single words a few times, you would work on single words. If you have never heard single words, but have heard some sounds, start with sounds as your goal.

Once you have decided what step your child is at, think about which part of the routine they will complete. For example, if your child is at the single word level and you are going up the stairs in your home, you might say "up" for each step, and then wait when you get to the fourth step to see if they will say "up." It is important to plan out a target action, sound, or word(s) before you start the routine.


Now that your child knows the routine and you know the goal, make sure you give them an opportunity to use the language you are targeting! Be sure to wait long enough for your child to recognize that it is their turn, but not so long that you lose their attention (sometimes I tell parents to wait 5 seconds, however this will depend on your child's attention span).


Once your child is able to use an action, a sound, or a word(s), think about how to take your goal to the next step. For example, for a child that points "up" for each step, you will begin to target "uh" (you can still say "up" but your expectation for them is only a sound). For a child that is making a sound to ask to go "up" you can start to target the full word. Once they can say "up" consistently you could target "go up" or "up the stairs." Remember to keep your phrases grammatically correct, even if it means adding a few extra words - just make sure to emphasize the words you are targeting (e.g., "up the stairs" - for our children at the 2 word stage). To continue to expand you could say "up the stairs fast/slow."


1. Songs - Songs such as, "Ring Around the Rosie," "Old McDonald," and "Happy and you Know It" are great choices because your child can complete an action, make a sound, or use a word/words to take a turn in these routines. Songs are repetitive and allow your child to anticipate what comes next.

2. "Up" and "Down" the stairs - If you have a home with stairs, you likely go up and down them many times throughout the day. If you had 10 stairs, for example, and you went up and down them 3 times in a day that would be 30x your child heard "up" and 30x your child heard "down."

3. "Up/down" game - For children who love movement, lifting them up in the air (saying "up, up, up" as they go up) and then dropping them on the bed when you say "down" is a great way to work on up/down. This works well for children that are not yet verbal or children using sounds and single words.

4. Hand washing - These days our children are washing their hands many times throughout the day! Each time they wash their hands it is a great time to target words like, on, off, wash, scrub, and dry - pick just one word to target at first.

5. Getting Dressed - Kids get dressed at least twice a day - and often more if they are getting dressed to go outside, if they are messy, or if they are still in diapers. For younger children, I typically target words such as "in" (e.g., "put your leg in"), "on" ("hat on"), or "off" ("pants off"). For older children you can start to target body parts, colours, choice making, and following instructions.

6. Getting in and out of the car - When we aren't in isolation, our children typically get in and out of the car many times a day. This is a great opportunity to target words such as "open," "up/down," (if you lift them into or out of their carseat), "sit," "in/out," and "snap" (when they hear the snap sound). Again, begin with only one of these words.

7. Meal time routines - Children typically have 3 meals and 2 snacks a day (although, if your child is like mine they are probably having a million snacks a day right now). Each time your child has a meal you can target words like "open" or "open the fridge," "drink," "eat," "more ___," "I want ____," and "I like _____."

8. Doors - Your child likely has to go through a lot of doors in a day! Every time they get to a closed door, put your hand on the doorknob and wait a few seconds to target "open," or "open the door." You can also teach them the sign for "open" if they are not yet using words.

9. "Communication Temptations" - Communication temptations involve putting favourite toys/snacks out of reach or in hard to open containers to provide more opportunities for your child to communicate. If you put toys up high, you might be targeting pointing, "down," or "I want ____." If you put a snack or toy in a hard to open container, you could target "open," "more," or "help me"

10. Ready, Set, Go - If your child loves to play cars or race you, "ready, set, go" is a super simple routine you can add to the activity. Once you have repeated "ready, set, go" many times, say "ready, set...." and then STOP, LOOK, & LISTEN to see if they will try to say "go" (verbally or non-verbally). For kids who have mastered "ready, set, go," you can add in "fast/slow" to the routine.

If you begin to intentionally target new words throughout your day you will be creating hundreds, maybe even thousands, of new opportunities for your child to use language! And the best part is you can do this without adding any extra work to your day.

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