It is exciting when your little one is getting to that milestone of being able to talk. We can’t help but stare at them and say, “say Mama”, staring at them with excitement and anticipation… hoping they will respond with words. What’s helpful to know is that other skills are needed prior to arriving to this special moment.

In today’s blog, we are going to talk about eight phases that must occur before your child will talk, created by Laura Mize, M.S., CCC-SLP, Steps to Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers. These phases center around the importance of targeting the pre-linguistic skill of imitation. It is important to remember that imitation is a core skill that must begin before your child develops linguistic skills.

  • Phase 1: Imitation of Actions with Objects →

    The first phase includes imitation of actions with objects. For example, your baby mirroring your action of banging two blocks together. “Late talkers” are often missing this core skill. Did you know that how a child imitates actions (not words!) at 18 months is the biggest predictor of language skills at 36 months (ie., 3 years)?

  • Phase 2 → Imitation of Communicative Gestures →

    Next, how well does your baby imitate big body movements (e.g., jumping, marching, dancing), as well as gestures such as waving hi/bye, pointing, blowing kisses, clapping, shaking/nodding head for “yes/no”? To help your child begin to imitate gestures, use “finger play” during songs (e.g., finger movements for “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, hand movements for “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, etc.). It is a great and fun way to get started.

  • Phase 3 → Imitation of Non-verbal Actions with Face/Mouth →

    Although research does not show that imitation of non-verbal actions with face/mouth are definitely required before a child learns to talk, it is worth mentioning as some children benefit from the added awareness of how to purposefully imitate. Non-verbal actions with face/mouth may include: puffing up cheeks, pushing tongue out, puckering a kiss, making a “raspberry” sound, etc.

  • Phase 4 → Imitation of Vocal Movements

    Will your child imitate a “fake cough”? Will your child imitate yourself “panting like a dog”? How about “growling”? Although you cannot transcribe these vocalizations, it is an important step in helping a child learn how to eventually imitate words.

  • Phase 5 → Imitation of Exclamatory Words

    Imitation of exclamatory words would include anything that your child imitates that you can spell (e.g., “quack”, “woof”, “vroom”, “uh oh”, “wow”, “wee”, etc.). These are considered to be “real words” because we use the same consonant and vowel patterns to record these words. Exclamatory words are a critical first step.

  • Phase 6 → Imitation of Words in Context

    Use of verbal routines, or words that become predictable because you use them the same way, in the same activity repeatedly, can be extremely useful. With verbal routines, your child is able to finish a familiar phrase that they hear. For example, it might be that you are singing a song “Clean up, clean up, everybody every….” and after a momentary pause, your child answers, “…where!”. Introducing verbal routines into your daily life can be excellent in promoting language skills.

  • Phase 7 → Imitation of Single Words

    After mastering phase 1-6, this is where you can expect your child to imitate functional words. It is recommended to always include functional words such as, “open”, “more”, “up”, “down”, and “help”, via repetition.

  • Phase 8 → Imitation of Short Phrases

    In order for your child to be a successful communicator, it is important for them to be a successful imitator. By this phase, your child may be imitating short phrases such as, “bye mama!”, and “more please”.
Going through these phases are key to developing functional expressive language skills. Treasure each of these phases, as they are huge accomplishments.

Happy talking to your little one!
-Andrea Scola, M.S., CCC-SLP, Exceptional Speech Therapy Blog Writer References:
Brennan, D. (2020, June 02). The Importance of Baby Talk: Tips on How to Talk to Your Baby. Retrieved from

Kylie Rymanowicz, M. S. (2018, October 02). The three T’s of communication: Talking more with your child. Retrieved from

Kylie Rymanowicz, M. S. (2018, October 02). The three T’s of communication: Taking turns with your child. Retrieved from

Kylie Rymanowicz, M. S. (2018, October 02). The three T’s of communication: Tuning in to your child. Retrieved from, L. (2012).

Teach me to talk: Building verbal imitation in toddlers. Shelbyville, KY:

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