What to do When a Toddler Can't Use Their Words

Using Sign Language as a Speech Therapy Tool

If your child is not using or imitating any real words verbally, then sign language is the next best step for you and your child. Let me give you three reasons why sign language is the next step for a late talker at this stage.

3 reasons why sign language is the next step for a late talker.

1. Sign Language decreases frustration

Most late talkers I’ve met in my career are not happy about the fact that they can’t talk. They are extremely frustrated and so are the parents. Hitting and biting are not uncommon behaviors among this group due to the fact that they can’t express themselves. It can be a really heartbreaking thing to witness when a toddler knows what he wants to say but can’t form the words. It’s awful. 

Sign language is meant to empower toddlers so that they can express themselves using their hands and have their loved ones actually understand them. What a relief! 

Let me use an analogy. Imagine you have laryngitis, an infection of the throat and you can’t talk, not even whisper! I imagine you’d feel frustrated. Mostly likely you’d start using body language and your hands to act out what you wanted to communicate to your loved ones. But imagine if you and your family knew a handful of signs and their meaning and you could use your hands to communicate to them that you needed “help” or wanted to “eat.” How empowering would that be for you? That’s the idea of using sign language with late talkers. Verbal speech is too hard at this exact moment in time, so in the meantime we are going to give them a temporary tool of using their hands to communicate.

2. Sign Language teaches the power of communication

In my experience, up until the point of me being introduced to the child as their speech therapist, the child has never had to do anything in order to get anything. Most things are just given to them. It’s dinner time so they get dinner, it’s time for bed so they get their favorite stuffed animal. They didn’t have to do or say anything. Maybe they grunted, cried, or pointed to the item they wanted, which is better than nothing and that is communication. But now, we are moving towards verbal communication which is the idea that you say something to get something. Well, they can’t do that quite yet. So we need them to do something to get something. Which for the time being is a sign to get something. Sign the word “more” to get more tickles. That concept of doing something is an important life lesson for little ones and will serve us when we want to teach them to say something to get something. That’s the power of communication! Signs give them power and so will words!

Check out this video showing the Top 10 Signs I like to use with toddlers in speech therapy.

3. Sign language is something we can actually "make" a child use

Sometimes parents ask me, “How do I make my child talk?” The answer is, you can’t. It is physically impossible to make any human speak. That happens within the brain and within the throat. We have zero control over that. We can only encourage a child to talk, but the magic of sign language is that we can make a child sign. Meaning we can gently, lovingly take their hands and help them to make the motion to communicate the word for “please” or “stop.” That’s an awesome teaching tool.

Every parent I have ever spoken to about using sign language with their late talker has naturally expressed concerns about their child “getting stuck” on sign language and not actually learning to speak. While I understand their fears, I share with them that research is in favor of using sign language as a temporary tool for late talkers.


Research shows that children can and often do learn to talk as they learn to sign. If you think about it, it makes sense that if a child has the physical capability to speak then in time, they would learn to say the words verbally while being taught sign because every time I use a sign with a child like “more,” I am also saying the word “more” out loud.

Researchers Millar and Light have published a paper that pulls together research from multiple scientists on this topic. In their review, they found that sign language does not prevent children with developmental disabilities from talking and may actually support their ability to speak. Another exciting bit of research was done by Capiriciet al. They found that learning sign language could actually improve intelligence in typically-developing, hearing children.

Article written by:


  • Millar, D. C., Light, J. C., & Schlosser, R. W. (2006). The impact of augmentative and alternative communication intervention on the speech production of individuals with developmental disabilities: A research review. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49(2), pp. 248–264.
  • Cattani, A., Rossini, P., & Volterra, V. (1998). Teaching Sign Language to Hearing Children as a Possible Factor in Cognitive Enhancement. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 3(2), pp. 135–142.

Credit to Laura Mize for: “You cannot make a child speak but you can take their little hands and make them sign,” and other elements that are based on her teachings from:

  • Teach me to Talk, 2016. 11 Skills Toddlers MUST Use Before Words. Episodes 275-290. [podcast] Teach me to Talk. Available at: https://teachmetotalk.com/tag/laura-mize-podcast/.
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