28-Month-Old Not Putting Phrases Together

Q: I have a 28-month-old toddler who has a vocabulary of approximately 100 words. He understands commands such as "Please put this in the garbage." "Please get your shoes so we can go outside." and "Lay down for Mommy so I can change your diaper." The 100 words he toddler speechdoes know are pronounced very clearly and we read to him often. He will even say "careful" without any prompt from me if he sees someone stumble. He will say "thank you" if I give him a piece of candy. My question is that he has not yet put phrases together. I will say to him "more" and he says "more," and I will say "juice" and he will say "juice," then I will say, "more juice" and he just says "juice." Should I be concerned at this point and seek early intervention with a therapist?

A: While most two-year-olds have begun to put words together, it is not uncommon for some to wait until later to do so. Some kids are just late bloomers. It sounds as if your son is doing very well with auditory comprehension and processing if he is able to follow two- and three-step directions without cues as you described in your question.

Secondly, he is producing multisyllabic words and some phrases at this point clearly, which indicates that his articulation is within normal limits. Connecting words into phrases and sentences is sure to follow during the next few months. In the interim, here are some things you can do to help lengthen his phrases.

Model the phrases you would like your child to use with self talk and parallel talk. Self talk is describing an experience while it’s happening to you, such as, "I’m washing the dishes." "There’s Daddy." or "Someone’s at the door." Parallel talk is describing an experience while it’s happening to your child, such as "You’re stacking the blocks." or "You want more juice." Describe things using many modifiers when you see them. "Look at that big, furry dog!" "This ice cream is cold and sticky." Expand the phrases your son uses yourself. When he says "careful," you reply with "Yes, please be careful, Daddy." Speak with your child as if you were engaging in a conversation, using turn-taking and waiting a few seconds for a response. Be sure to keep your sentences relatively short and full of vocabulary he already knows.

Children follow a developmental sequence, with the usual peaks and lows that all children experience, when acquiring phrases and grammatical elements known as morphology. When connecting words into phrases, the pattern, known as Brown’s Stages of Language Development, is as follows:

One to Two Years (Brown’s Stage I) 

  • Yes/No questions (usually one word with rising intonation) "Doggy?"
  • Early Wh-questions "What that?"
  • Recurrence "More juice."
  • Disappearance "All gone."

  • Existence "Here is..."
  • Agent-Action "Car go."
  • Action-Object "Throw ball."
  • Locative-Action "Car go in."
  • Locative-State "Go home."
  • Attribution "Big car."
  • Possession "My car." (Get used to this one!)

Two to Two-and-a-Half Years (Brown’s Stage II) 

  • Early Embeddings "Gonna go..." "Wanna cookie..."
  • Morphemes 
    • -ing action "Running" "Swinging" "Eating"
    • plural -s marker "Shoes"
    • in "Put in the box."

Two-and-a-Half to Three Years (Brown’s Stage III) 

  • Auxiliaries "I am hot."
  • Later wh-questions "Where is that?"
  • Interrogative Reversal "Is she...?" rather than "She is...?"
  • Morphemes

    • on "Put on the table."
    • possessive -s marker "Mommy’s car."

  • Personal (me, you) and demonstrative (this, that) pronouns


These stages progress through Stage V at about four-and-a-half years. As always, there is some debate on the exact sequence of acquisition of these units—language is an inexact science. These are general guidelines to follow and parents should not panic if their child is not producing each stage element. However, it is a useful tool in deciding which vocabulary words to focus on during self talk, parallel talk, and descriptions.