The top image shows a young boy with ginger hair playing with a wooden train track on the floor. Below the picture, black text in all caps, on a white background reads "3 Things to Consider if a Child Isn't Combining Words".

Three things to consider if a child isn’t combining words

In this blog post, we’re focusing on three things you should consider when working with toddlers and preschoolers who have a vocabulary of over 50 words but aren’t yet combining them into phrases. This post explores three key aspects to consider in your Early Intervention sessions to help young children to begin combining words.

Typical Early Language Milestones

As Speech and Language Therapists, we know that children develop at different rates and not all children follow the same developmental pattern. However, typical developmental milestones state that by two years old, children will be using at least 50 words and will begin combining words into short two-word phrases, e.g., “more juice”, “daddy eat”, etc.
By three years old, children are typically using at least 300 words and should be using phrases with three or more words.
Need quality, caregiver-friendly milestone handouts? Grab these Communication Development Handouts to share in your Early Intervention sessions.

Picture of the 2-3 years old communication development handout from The SLT Scrapbook. The handout is slightly offset and there is a wooden train track on the right of the picture to show visual interest.

But, not every child who has over 50 words combines words into phrases straight away. Some of the children we work with in our Speech and Language Therapy sessions remain at the single word level for a variety of reasons. Below is a list of three things you should consider if a child is not yet combining words.

Things to Consider if a Child isn’t Combining Words into Phrases

If you are working with a child in your Early Intervention sessions who has 50+ words, but is not yet combining words into phrases, you might want to take a step back and look at these things:

1. The types of words the child has in their inventory.

If a child’s vocabulary inventory consists mainly of nouns, they will not be able to combine these to make many novel phrases.
A child needs to use and understand a mixture of word types as this helps to form the foundation for combining words.

It can also be helpful to look at the different reasons why the child communicates. For example, requesting, greetings, protesting, commenting, etc. Are they using a range of words for these purposes? This can be used to identify gaps in the child’s vocabulary.
Research shows that a combination of nouns (aka. substantive words) and verbs, social words, prepositions, etc. (aka. relational words) “provides the child with the tools to communicate a variety of needs” (Lederer, 2002, pg.14), including requesting objects, requesting actions, using greetings, etc.

So work with caregivers to keep a list of the words the child says. This will help you get an idea of the different word types a child is using and then you can build their vocabulary as needed.

In the background, a young boy is sat at a table completing an interactive book activity. The book is called "A Book About Sitting" and supports children to combine words into phrases. 
The text overlay reads "if a child isn't combining words into phrases yet, look at the types of words they're using. If they're not using a variety of word types, they'll have difficulty forming phrases".

2. Their non-verbal gestures/actions.

The child may be combining a gesture with a word, e.g., pointing and saying “cookie” to request more cookies. This shows that they have the ability to express two ideas but need to build their vocabulary so they can do this verbally.

Again, work with caregivers to identify the gesture + word combinations the child is using. Then coach caregivers to model the words the child is not yet using verbally. Repeat these words a few times in a natural way and provide the child opportunities to use that word.

3. Their speech sound skills.

If the child has a limited speech sound inventory, or has difficulty sequencing sounds and syllables (i.e., they’re only using single-syllable words), they may have difficulty using phrases.  You may need to work on developing their use of multi-syllabic words and more varied sounds before working on combining words.
This Informal Speech Sound assessment helps you easily assess single words, CV/VC blends, and multisyllabic words.

Resources to help young children combine words into phrases

If you’re working with a child that has 50+ words, and a varied vocabulary, and appropriate speech sound skills, then they may benefit from targeted activties to support them to combine words into phrases. This resource for Expanding Utterances is a great way to help build these early phrases in your Speech and Language Therapy sessions.

On the left, black text on a white background reads:
"An excellent resource for my early intervention and school-age clients! My students are also super engaged when reading the short stories, reading out loud, and interacting with the velcro visuals. Great for expanding language and utterances! - Rachel W". 
It shows a 5 start rating and the words "extremely satisfied".
On the right is a picture of the resource being used by a little girl.

If you are a teletherapist or just prefer using digital materials in your Speech and Language Therapy sessions, this digital game for Windows PCs is ideal for teaching verbs and expanding utterances.

On the left is a picture of a laptop on a desk with a digital memory game in progress on screen. Next to the laptop are some printed visuals.
On the right, black text on a white background reads: "Support your students to learn early verbs and build early phrases and sentences with this digital verb memory game for Windows PCs, perfect for teletherapists or therapists that enjoy using digital resources.
Includes printable materials too!"

It can be helpful to consider all those three things when working with a child who isn’t yet combining words into phrases, before you dive straight into building phrases. We need to meet the child where they are to help them achieve success, which may involve taking a step back and that’s OK!

References: 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.