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What is Imitation and Why is it Important for Learning to Talk?

Imitation is when a child copies or mimics the actions, sounds, or gestures of others. It's like playing a game of follow-the-leader, where toddlers observe what someone else is doing and try to do the same thing themselves. This skill is crucial for toddlers because it helps them learn and understand the world around them.

By imitating others, toddlers start to grasp how things work and how to communicate. For example, if they see someone clapping, they may try to clap too. Through imitation, they learn about social interaction, language, and even problem-solving. It's like they're building their own toolkit for navigating the complexities of human interaction and language.

Before toddlers can talk, imitation serves as a foundation for communication. They learn basic gestures, sounds, and expressions through imitation, which later evolve into words and sentences. So, mastering imitation is like laying the groundwork for their future language development.

In essence, imitation is more than just copying; it's a fundamental skill that helps toddlers learn, communicate, and connect with the world around them.

There are sequential levels of imitation that we can expect children with typically developing language and social skills to move through as they grow and develop.

Levels of Imitation:

  1. Actions with Objects — In the first level of imitation a child learns to copy actions that they see another person perform with familiar objects. This begins as early as 6 months of age when a baby might copy a caregiver shaking a rattle, banging two blocks together, or even holding a bottle. Another example of imitating at this level is imitating daily activities — wiping table, talking on a phone, cutting food, pouring from a cup, feeding a baby, etc. Any toy or objects a child shows interest in can be used to teach imitation skills at this most basic level!

  2. Body Movements and Communicative Gestures — Imitation at this level looks like a child copying clapping their hands together, participating in Peek-A-Boo or "So Big!," and mimicking communicative gestures, such as pointing, waving, reaching arms to be picked up, and shaking their head yes or no. This also includes gestures during familiar songs. Some of my favorite songs for working on imitation at this level are Itsy Bitsy Spider, Wheels on the Bus, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Open Shut Them. You can help your toddler at this level by adding gestures to your play routines and during book reading.

  3. Actions with Your Face and Mouth — This is sometimes referred to "nonverbal" imitation or actions/movements involving your face and mouth. This includes movements like opening and closing your mouth, blowing a kiss, sticking out your tongue and wagging it side to side like a puppy, and smiling. I also like to include blowing musical instruments or bubbles and drinking from a straw cup when working on imitation at this level. Practice at this level can be short and silly! Use a mirror to help your child build awareness of what their lips, tongue, and cheeks are doing!

  4. Silly Sounds in Play — This level of imitation is easily my favorite! At this level we start to see a toddler copying sounds during play. I refer to these early vocalizations as "play sounds" and they include things like "mmm" pretending to eat, "ahh" after taking a big drink, panting like a dog, smelling a flower, etc. They also include exclamatory words like "Uh oh!," "Woohoo!," "Yay!", as well as sounds we associate with animals (i.e., moo, woof, meow) and vehicles (i.e., beep-beep, vroom, choo-choo). Sometimes this step gets overlooked by well-meaning professionals in place of expecting a toddler to start imitating "real words." This can lead to frustration from everyone! Start with silly, play sounds to get your toddler more confident in becoming noisy!

  5. Verbal Routines — In this level of imitation a children begins to use real words during very familiar and highly predictable routines. These verbal routines are so familiar that they become automatic, such as “1-2-3” or “Ready, set, go!” Before a young child will begin to imitate at this level, they need to have heard the verbal routine often enough to have learned the routine and be able to anticipate what word should come next. You can start using highly predictable verbal routines with your baby! Make up your own silly verbal routines for favorite games and toys that your child is showing interest in and use verbal routines to announce daily activities, such as diaper change, getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc. The predictability and repetitiveness of your words are what will determine how fast a toddler learns to understand and then say the words you use.

  6. Familiar "Real" Words — In this final level of imitation a child will begin to imitate "real" words! The words we choose are important. We want to choose words that are easiest for a child to pronounce (single syllable words to start, using the early developing consonant sounds M, P, B, W, H, T, D, N) and words that are meaningful and functional to the child. These first words should be words that a toddler hears often and words that they understand. Some great words to target at this level of imitation are "up," "more," "hi/bye," "mama," "dada," and "ball."

Imitation Matters!

Imitation is the number one difference that really separates a talker from a non-talker.

When a child is not talking, there’s a high probability he’s not imitating and this is really where the child's therapy should really begin!

This was my main motivation for creating Imitation Book. My hope is that Imitation Book helps caregivers learn how they can support their toddler with learning these important imitation skills! You can order your copy of Imitation Book here:

If your child is not yet imitating or is having difficulty moving through these levels of imitation, reach out to a speech-language pathologist to see if your child may benefit from speech therapy. A trained speech-language pathologist can help coach you through how you can help your little one learn to imitate!

RESOURCE: Laura Mize, M.S., CCC-SLP Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist and creator of Teach Me To Talk is an incredible resource for caregivers and early intervention professionals. I highly recommend looking into her workbook, Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers. You can also subscribe to her email list to get great tips and strategies for working with your toddler. right to your inbox!


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