The toddler age begins when a child achieves walking and ends when the child is 2 ½ to 3 years old. Children in this age span still enjoy sensorimotor play such as touching, hearing, tasting, smelling, pushing, lifting, pulling, and dropping. They are also developing more complex ways of playing (Maxim, 1993), by using speech as a way of organizing their play and engaging in symbolic play. Toddlers’ increased physical independence is accompanied by a desire to be more autonomous in deciding what they engage in and when.

The four interaction patterns developed during infancy (i.e., eye contact and shared reference, communication loops, adult-to-child speech, and verbal mapping) are also important interaction patterns during toddlerhood. Eye contact and shared reference continues to be the basis for establishing a communicative interaction. This interaction becomes more complex due to the toddler’s short attention span and energetic exploration of his environment. The caregiver must closely monitor the toddler’s attention and make adjustments in the interaction to either maintain that attention or to allow the child to move on to another appropriate activity. For instance, when an adult is sharing a storybook with a toddler, the toddler may lose interest in the interaction after only about a minute. In the example that follows, Lisa is sharing a board book on animals with Joey.

Lisa: Oh, look! Here’s a lion. GRRR GRRR [pause]

Joey: [smiles, points to lion]

Lisa: Yeah, grrr. A big yellow lion. Let’s see the next page. [turns page] Oh, here’s the monkey. [makes monkey sounds; pause]

Joey: eee eee [turns page]

Lisa: Oh, look at the lamb. Baa Baa [pause]

Joey: [points to lamb] Baaaaa (hears garbage truck rumble by outside the center, looks at window; turns book over to back cover and starts to leave)

Lisa: All done! That was a good book!

In this example, Lisa accepted Joey’s decision to end the storybook sharing. Lisa realized that Joey’s short attention span was characteristic of his developmental level and accommodated this during her interaction with him. Lisa and Joey’s storybook interaction also illustrates a pattern of establishing communication loops as Lisa paused after speaking to provide opportunity for Joey to respond verbally, nonverbally, or in both ways. Lisa’s speech was characteristic of adult-to-child speech because it was short and not complex syntactically. She also focused on items pictured in the book rather than talking about events or animals not in the immediate context.

During an adult–toddler interaction, providing wait time is critical to encouraging a toddler to respond. When toddlers do not respond quickly to an adult’s utterance, the adult’s reaction may be to “fill in the blanks, answer all the questions, and even comment without leaving a pause” (Manolson, 1992, p. 7). This lack of sufficient wait time will discourage a child from responding, because the adult continues on as if no response was expected.

Maintaining the communication loop with toddlers also requires specific techniques because toddlers are only beginning to carry on longer conversations. Caregivers can use the following techniques to keep the conversations going (Manolson, 1992):

  • Use facial expressions to show you are waiting for the child to take a turn.
  • Lean close to the child to show the child she has your attention.
  • Point to the activity or object of interest for the child’s response.
  • Use words like, “Look,” “Your turn,” “What’s happening?”
  • Repeat what you said with a questioning intonation.
  • Use questions that show your interest or encourage the child to extend his thinking.

Part of the challenge in maintaining the communication loop is interpreting the child’s response. When you have difficulty understanding a child’s response, try one of the following strategies to clarify the child’s response and keep the communication going:

  • Observe carefully the immediate context. What is the child focusing on? What just happened? Guess at the child’s meaning based on what has just occurred.
  • Repeat what the child just said but with a questioning intonation: “You want?”
  • Ask the child to “show teacher what you want.”

In the adult-to-child interaction pattern, the adult tailors the conversation to the child’s level of comprehension. When the language of the conversation becomes too complex, toddlers will disengage. Weitzman and Greenberg (2002) offered the following guidelines to tailor a conversation to toddlers:

  • Say less: Use shorter sentences and less complex grammar and vocabulary.
  • Use prosody and intonation: Stress important words; use expressive intonation in a slightly higher pitch.
  • Use repetition of specific words and phrases.
  • Speak slowly and distinctly.
  • Establish joint reference: Talk about events and objects in the immediate environment, and use gestures in referring to the events and objects.

Verbal mapping is also frequently used with toddlers to connect language with ongoing events. By using language to describe an ongoing event, children learn the language needed to refer to the event and to begin to attach labels to the concepts and schemata. For example, in her toddler classroom, Lisa was sitting at a table with two toddlers, Sarah and Robby, who had just been given a lump of play dough and a roller. As Sarah and Robby began to manipulate the play dough, Lisa described their actions: “Look at Robby stretch the play dough. It is getting longer and longer.” “Sarah is rolling her play dough. She is making it smooth.”

In addition to the interaction patterns developed during infancy (i.e., eye contact and shared reference, communication loops, and verbal mapping), mediation is an interaction pattern that enhances children’s language acquisition during the toddler years.

Mediation occurs when the toddler’s caregiver uses language to simplify a complex event, such as in altering the text when sharing a storybook that has a text that is too complex for the toddler to understand. For example, when sharing Corduroy (Freeman, 1968, p. 1) with Westley, a 2 ½-year-old, Lisa altered the text as follows:

Text What Lisa “read”
“Corduroy is a bear who once lived “This is Corduroy [points to bear].
in the toy department of a big store.  He lives in a toy store.
Day after day he waited with all the  See the clown [pauses and points],  the rabbit [pauses and points],
other animals and dolls for somebody."  the doll [pauses and points], the giraffe [pauses and points].”

In changing the text to fit Westley’s developmental level, Lisa simplified the story to increase Westley’s understanding of the story. As caregivers use mediation along with the other interaction patterns of eye contact and shared reference, communication loops, adult-to-child speech, and verbal mapping, a complex linguistic scaffolding develops that supports and encourages toddlers to actively participate in communicating with their caregivers.