Laura de Medici-Bentley: Finding those ‘teachable moments’ with language

Laura de Medici-Bentley

Livia has always been a “talker,” but her language has really been exploding this past week. I used to hear her use a few new words per week, but lately she has been picking up new words every day and putting a variety of little sentences together.

When I first started noticing this “language explosion,” it was a little overwhelming. I started asking myself “Is she learning enough? How can I make sure she’s learning a variety of words and not the same words every day?”

First, I started reading different stories to her. She loves her little board books, but now she has a long enough attention span to enjoy longer books. She really enjoys “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”

Then, I try to find as many “teachable moments” as possible. When I see her getting frustrated, I’ll use it as an opportunity to give her the language she needs to express herself. For example, when I’m doing something [let’s say I’m washing a dish by hand] and she wants to do it, also, I will say “you want to wash the dish, too.” Now, she has started to say “Too! Too!” when she wants to be part of something.

Something else that is really empowering for toddlers is talking about their emotions. Feelings can feel big and scary to toddlers [resulting in meltdowns]. A few months ago, I started talking about the different emotions and showing what they look like on my face. When I see that she’s upset, I get down to her level and say “You are really angry because ______.” By narrating it for her, I show her that I understand her feelings, and I’m modeling how she can express herself with words.

The other day, Livia wanted to watch a video on my phone during naptime, and I said “no.” She said Angry! and crossed her arms. I said “You’re angry because you want to use my phone, and I said no. It’s time to rest. You can watch a video later.”

Now that she has really grasped the concept of feelings, I’ve started to talk about “why” we might feel a certain way. When we’re playing with her dolls, she’ll say “Baby sad! Baby crying!” I’ll say “Why is your baby crying? She’s crying because she’s hungry,” making sure I’m accentuating the words “why” and “because.” Most people think I’m strange for this, but I’m really looking forward to the “why?” phase!

I also talk about our surroundings and ask her questions about what she thinks. If we see a plane in the sky, I’ll ask “where do you think it’s going?” She doesn’t know how to answer these questions yet, so I’ll throw out different possibilities: “maybe the plane is flying to the beach!”

Something that is a little challenging is making sure I’m speaking enough Italian to her. Now that she’s absorbing everything so quickly, I need to make sure that I’m taking advantage of this stage. She has a few Italian books, and I read them to her as much as possible. She understands Italian and speaks some as well, but my goal is to help her become fluent, like me. I’ve read that in most bilingual households, one parent will exclusively speak one language, and the other parent only speaks the other language. I haven’t fully committed to that, but after I teach her an important phrase or word, I usually repeat myself in Italian. My father only speaks Italian to her, and since I see him almost every day, it really helps.

Lastly, this phase has made me be mindful of how I speak. I take pride in all of the positive things she has learned, but it’s easy to forget that she is always learning and listening. Imagine my shock when my 2-year-old dropped her toys and said a choice phrase under her breath, the same way I do when I drop my keys while holding a handful of groceries. I knew a big reaction would most likely make her want to continue to repeat this phrase, so I casually redirected her to say “Oh No!” or “Aw, man!” I love this stage because I feel like I am thinking just as much as she is.

As much as I enjoy the current moments, a lot of thought goes into what I can help her learn next by challenging her a little. The more she learns, the more I’m challenged to ask myself “what’s next?”

Laura de Medici-Bentley, of Winchester Virginia, is a former early childhood educator who currently enjoys staying home with her 2-year-old daughter. She is an author of a personal blog, She can be reached at