Picture of a young girl with her hands to her mouth as if shouting. Text reads "Choosing target words for late talkers".

5 Things to Consider when Choosing Target Words for Late Talkers

Do you struggle to choose target words to focus on in therapy with your little ones? Do you ever wonder if there’s a “better” way to choose target words for therapy, particularly for your late talkers? I got curious about all this myself and did a deep dive into approaches for choosing vocabulary for late talkers. I learned a wealth of information that I wanted to share with you. In this post, I’m sharing 5 things we should keep in mind when choosing target words for late talkers in therapy. These 5 things are based on best practice guidance (see Lederer, 2002).  These considerations re. target words are specifically for the Focused Stimulation approach, but these points are good to keep in mind when working with all little ones and choosing target words for therapy sessions.

Q- Have you ever heard of/used the Focused Stimulation approach before?

It is a great approach to use when working with children who are at single-word level of language development, and who have specific gaps in their vocabulary and language skills. It is well suited to working with late talkers too. Research has shown that this approach may be more beneficial than general language stimulation for autistic children, and children with developmental difficulties, (see Carter et al, 2011, and colleagues, cited by Finestack and Fey, 2013, in Rescorla and Dale, 2013). My Early Language Units are based on the Focused Stimulation approach, and the 12 target words covered in each Unit are specifically chosen based on this criteria, as per best practice guidance outlined by Lederer (2002).

Image of a child eating snacks out of a bowl on the left of the image.. Quote from the blog post about choosing target words for late talkers on the right-, text reads "the focused stimulation approach is suitable for children who are at single word level or language development and those who have specific gaps in their vocabulary and language skills".

When choosing target words for late talkers in therapy you want to consider…

1- The child’s current speech production skills.
2- The child’s current expressive vocabulary.

How do you do this?

Work with the parent/caregiver, daycare staff etc. to gather a sample of the child’s vocabulary. Then analyse the list; make a note of the different speech sounds and syllable shapes they use. You can include words that are imitated, as they still show which sounds and syllables the child can produce. You want to gather an idea of their vocabulary skills too, as there is no need to target words they can already produce. You then choose target words that are in line with this.


Research (Leonard et al., 1982, and others, cited by Lederer, 2002) has shown that children are more able and willing to attempt new words that begin with sounds they already produce, and that are consistent with the numbers of syllables they already use. For example, if a child can produce ‘baby’, then ‘bubbles’ or ‘bye bye’ could be possible target words.

On the left of the picture there is a young boy looking out of the window. On the right side of the picture there is a quote from the blog post about choosing vocabulary for late talkers. The text reads "children are more willing to attempt new words that begin with sounds they can already produce and that are consistent with the number of syllables they already use"..

Another thing to consider when choosing target words for late talkers…

3- Developmental Language Norms

It is thought that words the child can imitate will eventually develop on their own… so you want to select other target words that are developmentally appropriate. But just HOW do you do that?
Well, there are two FANTASTIC sources you can refer to: Fenson et al., (1994) and Rescorla, Alley, and Christine (2001).

  • Fenson and colleagues (’94) researched the vocab development of over 1000 young children with and without language delays.
  • Rescorla and colleagues (’01) separated children with language delay and those with typically developing language, and conducted two studies, looking at % mastery of 310 words by 24 months.
  • Both studies identified the percentage of children who mastered a huge variety of words at different ages.

Both papers have lists of words and all the necessary data (with clear explanations) included. So you can look through the list and find relevant vocabulary to target, that also meets the first two criteria I highlighted above.

If you think all this sounds a little complicated, fear not! I spent a long time analysing all the info and data when choosing the vocabulary to include in each of my Early Language Units. So you can easily and confidently support late talkers and preschoolers with language delay in your sessions. 

What else should you consider when choosing target words for therapy?

4- The child’s interests.

Why should we consider this?

This one is pretty straightforward really. We know that children are more likely to communicate when they are motivated by, and engaged with, an activity. So choosing words related to their interests can have a positive impact on their communication skills. Also, because the child is familiar with the target words and topic, they are likely to feel more confident, and thus, it is more likely that they will attempt to communicate.

How do we go about it?

Liaise with parents/caregivers to find out about the child’s interests– their favourite toys, games, TV shows, books, etc. Then generate relevant target words related to these (that also match the other criteria where possible). You can also choose words that are meaningful for the family, such as names of family members, pets, favourite foods, etc. Things that are interesting to the child in some way can/should be included on the list.

The final thing to consider when choosing target words for late talkers

5- Different words types.

Why do we need to choose different word types?

When choosing target words for little ones, you want to choose a range of nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, concepts, social words, etc. Research shows that having a range of words types helps children to communicate a variety of needs, such as requesting, commenting, using greetings, etc. (see Lahey 1988, cited by Lederer 2002). And targeting different word types helps to form the foundation for combining words. E.g.- subject+verb, verb+object, adj+object, etc.   My Early Language Units each target 12 words with a mix of word types to help build children’s language from single words to short phrases.


I hope you’ve found this outline helpful. I know it has helped to give me a clear direction for choosing vocabulary in my therapy sessions. If you’re keen to learn more about the Focused Stimulation approach, and want a range of materials and therapy plans to help you confidently and easily deliver the intervention, check out the Early Language Units, available for purchase now as an instant digital download from my TpT store.



  • Fenson, L., Dale, P S., Reznick, J. S., Bates, E., Thal, D. J., & Pethick, S. J. (1994). ‘Variability in Early Communication Development’. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Language Development, Vol.59(5), pp.1-173.
  • Finestack, L.H. and Fey, M.E. (2013). ‘Evidence-Based Language Intervention Approaches for Young Talkers’. In Rescorla, L.A. and Dale, P.S. (eds.). (2013). Late Talkers: Language Development, Interventions, and Outcomes. Paul H Brookes Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD.
  • Lederer, S. (2002). ‘A Focused language Stimulation Approach: First Vocabulary for Children With Specific Language Impairment’, Young Exceptional Children, Vol. 6(1). pp.10–17.
  • Rescorla, L., Alley, A., & Christine, J. B. (2001). ‘Word Frequencies in Toddlers’ Lexicons’, Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, Vol.44, pp.598-609.