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  • Caley Nunnally

What Counts as A Word?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Written by Caley Nunnally, Speech Language Pathologist


As a parent, we are so eager for our little ones to finally start talking. We spend so much time and energy talking TO them, that we can’t wait until they talk to US! I asked Caley, a Speech Pathologist to chime in and provide the basics for us.

When those first sounds start coming, many parents have the question…what counts as a word?!

A word can be counted as long as it is used

  • Consistently

  • Without a prompt (not imitating you!)

  • For a purpose (like requesting something, naming what or who someone or something is, etc!)

We count:

  • Most animal sounds (as long as they have speech sounds! For example, “Moo” and “Woof” count but a snorting sound would not count as there is not a consonant nor vowel in that sound)

  • Sign language signs (if your baby can sign more while saying “more”, that’s 2 words!)

  • Words that don’t sound perfect yet (“uh” while reaching “UP!” counts if it is consistent and without a prompt! Wanting to be picked up is the purpose.)

  • Play sounds and exclamatory words such as “uh oh!”, “boom!” and “wee!” (don’t forget the must have speech sounds rule!)

  • Words in another language (If your child has 4 words in Spanish and the same 4 words in English…that is NOT double dipping! That’s 8 words!)

Now to the good stuff… What can you do to encourage first words? Here are 3 tips:

  1. Take those grunts and weird sounds they make and MODEL the word that they would say if they could talk! For example, if you hear an “ah!” sound while they have their hand on your pretend kitchen burner, model “HOT!” and exaggerate that vowel. Vowels are often easier to imitate initially!

  2. Stay one step ahead of them. If they say 0 true words or only grunt when playing with something, you model 1 word. If they say 1 word, you model 2 words! While children typically understand more than they can say, we want to keep our language to a level that is easier for them to imitate.

  3. Follow their lead and watch their eyes. Take what they are interested in and teach those words. Staring at a fan? Teach FAN, GO, ON, OFF, STOP, PULL, MY (TURN) etc. Communication requires motivation and if you know what they’re motivated by…they’ll be more likely to engage with you and try to talk about whatever it is you’re interacting with!

For more early speech and language tips, check out our guide:


About Caley:

Caley is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and works with children ages birth-18 years. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and a Master’s Degree in Speech-Language Pathology. She currently works in an outpatient clinic and does home visits for children birth-age 3. She is also a mom to a 2 year old little boy! When the pandemic hit, she started @LearnwithChatterboxes to share tips and foster engaging hands-on play while working on speech and language skills. Caley is passionate about empowering parents and helping children reach their full potential. She truly loves her job!



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