When we help children learn how to use language, we want to start by helping them do more of what they’re already doing by reinforcing and helping them feel proud about their attempts to communicate. Early language acquisition is instinctive and for most children tends to happen quite naturally. But how we as adults respond to their attempts to communicate can have an impact—accelerating or decelerating their language development.
As a speech-language pathologist who works with young children who are in the process of acquiring and developing language, I have collected many strategies and techniques that help children learn. Here are some of the basics that you can begin to use at home in everyday interactions with all children — those who are acquiring language typically and those who may be having a little more trouble.
Speech comes later
As all parents know, words aren’t the only way to communicate. Young children point, make eye contact, and use body language to give us messages. Recognizing, encouraging, and positively reinforcing these precursors to language set the stage for speech production and language to come. But even before kids figure out how to point to something they want, they communicate with us in other ways.
Early on, when infants cry because they’re hungry or uncomfortable, they may simply be reacting to how they feel — but when parents interpret and respond to their cries and sounds, babies begin to notice the reciprocal relationship between vocalization and getting their needs met. This encourages them to begin intentionally communicating their needs, through things like pointing and body language and making more sounds.
Eventually words will become the most efficient way for them to communicate with us, but until then parents shouldn’t overlook the importance of shaping nonverbal communication, which cements the utility of communication in a child’s mind and drives him to learn to communicate in more sophisticated ways.
One of the most interesting things about the development of language in children is that it is closely related to play. The time period when kids begin producing their first words, usually around 12 to 13 months, is also the same time that symbolic play evolves. By symbolic play I mean something like a child holding a banana to her ear and pretending that it is a phone.
Developmentally speaking, it makes sense that these two things would occur at the same time because children must first learn to think symbolically in order to use language, since language is symbolic (a word represents an object, for example). So when you join your child in imaginative play, you are actually encouraging and helping to expand her new capacity to represent things mentally and symbolically.
Observing and understanding your child’s play skills can help you as a parent know what to expect next. For example, if your child hasn’t moved past banging a spoon on the table, you shouldn’t expect her to be using speech to communicate yet because, developmentally, the intent to communicate is still emerging.
There are lots of ways parents can create opportunities that encourage kids to practice their communication skills. A favorite is putting things just out of reach. For example instead of handing your son a granola bar that you know he wants, let him see it slightly out of reach and wait for him to ask for it in some way.
How you arrange things in your home can create lots of opportunities for talking. Walk around the house and notice where the books and toys are. Maybe put the more desirable toys a little higher up (but still within eye-level). Similarly, you can try giving kids only part of a puzzle or Mr. Potato Head toy. Let them ask you for the other pieces they need. The goal here isn’t to frustrate your child, but it is to manipulate the environment in a way that encourages him to ask for things, notice things, and use intentional communication.
Another fun way to get kids communicating is to pretend to be forgetful. During a routine that you and your daughter have established — for example getting dressed — you can forget to put her socks on before her shoes. If your daughter is used to socks coming before shoes, she is going to notice the change in routine and “catch” you being forgetful.
You can also pause during some predicable activity, like singing a favorite song. If she likes “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” maybe one day sing, “The itsy bitsy spider ran up the — ” and then pause, encouraging her to fill in the blank. This not only encourages her to retrieve and use new vocabulary words, but also teaches her turn taking and that using language in a back and forth exchange is fun!
Strategies to expand language skills
When working with kids on language skills, your goal should always be to help them reach just the next level of complexity — nothing more and nothing less. For example if your child communicates in one or two word bursts, your goal should be to model and use three and four word sentences. But make sure to follow your child’s lead so they remain engaged and empowered to try out new words and communicate in new ways.
Talking and communicating with others should be fun! Remember, language is something kids acquire naturally, so we want to watch what they’re interested in, observe and listen to how they communicate, and help bring them to the next level of language skill.
Here are some strategies you can use with kids from birth all the way up to five years old, depending upon their language level. How you do these things may look different during infancy compared to when kids are starting to use words, but the basic idea will remain the same.
- Imitate: If your daughter is making noises (babbling), making another sound in play, or even banging a spoon, you can do that too. Imitating children’s sounds, words, and actions shows them that they’re being heard and that you approve of what they’re doing or saying. It also promotes turn taking and, best of all, encourages them to imitate you and your more complex language utterances.
- Interpret: If your son is pointing to the apple juice that he wants to drink, he is communicating with you. Take this to the next level by interpreting what he is trying to say. Respond with, “Apple juice! You want apple juice!”
- Expanding and recasting: When your daughter says “red truck,” you can expand on that by saying, “Yes, a big red truck.” If your son says, “The dragon jumping on the bed,” you can recast his grammar by saying, “The dragon is jumping on the bed. Use stress and intonation to highlight the words you want your child to focus on.
- Commenting and describing: Instead of telling kids what to do during playtime, be a sportscaster and give a play-by-play of what they’re doing. Say, “You’re driving the red car around in circles,” or, “You’re putting the cow into the barn. The cow is going to sleep.” This models good vocabulary and grammar and helps kids organize their thoughts. Maybe they weren’t actually putting the cow to sleep — maybe they were just putting it inside the barn—but by suggesting that you’ve given them a new concept to consider.
- Eliminate negative talk: Try not to say things like, “That’s not where the cow goes,” or, when they’re coloring, “The sky isn’t pink.” Remember we want to encourage all attempts to communicate and validate those attempts so that kids do more of it. We all respond better to more positive phrasing.
- Contingent responses: Respond immediately to all attempts to communicate, including words and gestures. This is a big one. It shows kids how important communication is and gives you the opportunity to model more sophisticated language skills.
- Balance turn taking: Give kids the space to exercise their communication skills by making sure they get a turn. Turns don’t need to be talking, either. A turn could be your child handing you a toy or making eye contact. Maybe your daughter will look at you because she needs help opening a box. You can say, “You need help opening the box!” Then you can wait for her to hand you the box — that’s her taking another turn. Turn taking can be hard for parents because we’re used to taking charge of situations, but it is important to give kids the opportunity to use the skills they are developing.
- Label things: Even when kids aren’t ready to use words yet, you can prepare them by labeling things in their environment. During bubble baths keep referring to the bubbles; during snack time you can label the apple juice.
- Limit “testing”: If you know that your son knows which sound a pig makes, don’t keep asking him. Testing him during playtime instead of just playing with him can be stressful. Instead you could say, “I wonder where the pig is going?” It still invites him to respond, but it doesn’t put him on the spot.
- Labeled praise: Instead of just saying “good job,” put a label on that praise. If you’re child isn’t yet using words, (or even if they are) you could say, “Good job putting all the blocks back,” because it reinforces their good behavior even more. For a child who is using some words to communicate, you could say, “Nice job telling me that you want apple juice,” or “Nice job saying more juice please.” This will help create positive feelings around communication and motivate them to continue to try and add new words.