The Two-Word Rule

My oldest son has an auditory processing disorder (sometimes known as CAPD), and for the longest time, it evaded me. There are many symptoms of auditory processing problems, but it was difficult to diagnose him because they were either too vague or overlapped with other possible diagnoses (e.g. high functioning autism). One of the most notorious vague symptoms–but, in retrospect, one of the most telling–was the Two Word Rule.

Around age two, toddlers should be able to start putting two words together like “see ball” or “more milk.” However, it can be confusing for parents to judge whether or not their little one is doing this because children often say phrases that consist of more than one word, like “all done”, “i sorry,” “how doin’?”, “here ya go” or “here it is.” These little phrases are often badly annunciated and run together like one big word–“chunking” is what they call it. So if your toddler “chunks,” he is not actually putting two words together yet.

Nor is he putting two words together if he can repeat your phrases but can’t make up his own. Lots of kids have fantastic memories and can repeat videos they’ve heard, questions they’ve been asked, etc. My little boy could say “what’s this?” or “what color?” very early–because he got used to that question! Or he could sing the ABC song or talk along with the script to the Blues Clues video by age two as well. But he did not put two novel words together… ever.

This should have been a red flag, but I didn’t recognize it. On the screening quizzes or developmental checklists, the criterion often simply states “Puts together two words” or “uses two-word phrases,” and so I thought, “yeah, he does that.” But chunking or repeating, or simply parroting back responses he’s heard before did not constitute ACTUAL CREATING of TWO WORD PHRASES! If I could tell this to other moms suspecting auditory processing problems, I would in a heartbeat. Two or three years later, I realize how important this criterion was.

Now, not all auditory processing problems are the same. Some kids have delayed receptive languages. Some have delayed expressive language. Some have both. For some, other criteria might be more salient. But don’t let this one confuse you. It is important. The child should be creating (NEW) two-word constructions when he talks to you or answers a question. Things like

verb+noun (“run doggy” or vice-versa “doggy run”
adj+noun (“silly mom,” “two crackers,” “red shirt”)
adj + verb (“more up?”)

If he can’t create these constructions on his own, he hasn’t met that criterion yet. Look for it and consider asking your pediatrician or Early Intervention people if it isn’t coming.


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