You can help your young children develop language


Written by:  Lucy Ruthven, M.Sc, RSLP

As a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP), I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds of young children in the process of (or on the verge of) developing what I believe is the most important accomplishment in their young lives – the ability to communicate. I have learned many valuable things from the children I have met and their insightful parents, as well as from what the research is telling us about language development. As SLP’s we address many different areas of communication but for the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on language.


Interaction with your child is the first step and most important framework for all language learning. When a child is happily engaged with you in activities/conversations that matters to them, the stage is set for unlimited language learning.


Listen and observe your child and to listen to any attempts to communicate, respond back to them what they might want to say if they had the words, or the words they are saying (you might have to guess!)


Get down to your child’s level and get “face-to-face time” whenever you can, set aside the phone, or other gadgets, and give your child your undivided attention. You will be in a better position to read your child’s cues and enable your child to receive important social and emotional information through facial expression, especially our eyes – and to start to link those visual cues to the words we are saying.


Engage in social games, even very young children. Use simple songs and rhymes to encourage interaction and participation through copying of actions or words, such as “Peek-a-boo”, “Round and Round the Garden and slow them down to give your child time to anticipate what will come next and to participate in some way, such as by pulling the blanket off your head during peek-a- boo. In familiar songs, pause with anticipation before the last word of a line to see if your child will finish the line (e.g. “Old MacDonald had a     ?”)


Talk to your child as young children understand many words long before they ever start talking. Talk to your child as you carry out daily routines such as, feeding, cleaning, or playing outside. Be careful – never talk non-stop! With a very young child, keep your phrases short, pause frequently, and leave lots of time for your child to contribute something – a sound, gesture, word and eventually a full phrase.  Follow your child’s lead and talk about whatever has captured their attention.


Repeat, repeat, repeat words to your child, in early stages of language development children need to hear a word repeated hundreds of times before they will eventually use it themselves. In any activity, aim to repeat a key word up to ten times (e.g. “bubbles” or “blow” during bubble blowing).  Yes, you WILL feel like a broken record!


Create opportunities. Try not to anticipate, or respond, to all of your child’s needs too quickly. Give them an opportunity to become more active as a communicator – to get your attention and to ask for what he/she wants in some way (vocalizing, reaching, a word). Put a desired object out of reach on occasion and WAIT, for example, pour a small amount of juice into a cup at a time to give an opportunity to ask for “more. If they do not come up with a word, model possible choices (e.g. “Do you want the ball or truck?”)


Give your child ample time to use their language, never push your child to frustration by deliberately withholding an object until they ask. We want them to be willing communicators or we risk shutting them down. Wait silently and with anticipation – but without pressuring them. Model relaxed communication when it’s your turn to talk, and give them unhurried time to express their thoughts. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t come out with the word today. Wait, model and be patient, you may have to try again another time.


Reduce the number of direct (‘testing’) questions. Overuse of questions tends to stop conversation. Try using “I wonder” statements instead, for example, “I wonder what that puppy is doing”. When asking questions, try open-ended ones such as “What is the puppy going to do next?” instead of yes/no questions.


Build your child’s vocabulary. If your child is just beginning to talk, model labels for familiar and motivating toys, food, clothes (nouns such as “car, apple, bottle, shoes”) and social words (such as “mommy/daddy, hi/bye, more, nite-nite”).  When they have close to 50 words, highlight action words too (verbs such as “eat, drink, sleep, wash “) and modifiers (descriptive words such as “big/little, wet, cold/hot”). These are the building blocks that your child will need to develop phrases. You aren’t really off the hook until the roles are reversed; your teenager starts to teach you new words.


Add to what your child says to encourage longer phrases. In the beginning stages, this usually means adding just one word, for example, they say “bubbles”, you can model “more bubbles” or “blow bubbles” and wait for them to try saying the whole thing (without pushing). In the later stages, this may mean adding a whole clause in order to develop more complex thought and fuller sentences. For example, if your child says “The boy is sad”, you could say “Yes, the boy is sad because he fell off his bike.”


Use gestures. Show your child what a word means by acting it out, especially action words such as “jump, dance, swim”). Encourage natural gestures such as clapping hands, reaching up, or ‘high five’. Introduce a few early signs (for example more, please, baby, eat, drink, help). Always exaggerate the spoken word along with modeling the gesture or sign.


Share books with your child, even as young as 6 months. Look for soft cloth, colorful board books, or those with textures that encourage children to look or touch while you name the pictures. Follow your child’s lead and label the pictures they seem to be looking at, including action words, such as “feed” the baby. Later, try books with predictable lines such as “Brown bear, Brown Bear” that your child can anticipate what happens next. It’s okay to re-read and re- read your child’s favourites. Use props to help act out the story (such as teddy bears, dishes, miniature chairs/beds for “Goldilocks and the three bears”). For older children, talk about the feelings and intentions of the characters in the story and possible reasons for them. Talk about the problems they encounter and brainstorm possible solutions.  Through exposure to narratives in books, your child will learn the skills and confidence to share his own personal stories.  Like vocabulary building, this activity can be shared for years to come.


Go exploring. Take your child to new places and introduce them to new providing a natural and meaningful context for acquiring new words and ideas, as well a providing an opportunity to meet the challenge of conversing with unfamiliar people in the safety of their parent’s presence. They come to understand that people have intentions and feelings that may differ from their own. Adventures also provide them with something to talk about at the end of the day – that very important step in their development that we SLPs like to formally refer to as “personal recall”.


Play with your child. Follow your child’s lead as you join them down on the floor in play. Play is their “job”, and they are likely very willing to talk about it.  For young children, encourage actions such as pretending to feed, give a drink, put to sleep, push a stroller and model the language around these. You can expand it eventually to include more elaborate scenarios such as pretending to go to the park, on a picnic, to the moon, or having a tea party.  Give them lots of opportunity to develop their imagination by coming up with their own ideas. Think of new problems that need solving by the characters. Have one object represent another (such as a plastic plate for a hat, a block for a spaceship).


Provide opportunities for peer play. Take advantage of community programs consisting of activities that your child might enjoy that includes other children or play dates at home with one or two other children. Encourage turn-taking, sharing materials, and pretend play. Children in settings where collaborative and imaginative play is encouraged have the advantage of becoming strong problem solvers and negotiators – and more flexible thinkers.


Engage in conversations with your child. Once children are putting words together in short phrases, they are ready to engage in conversations. Try to extend the number of turns you each take on a given topic. Talk about what is meaningful and relevant to them. Treat them as equal conversational partners – focus on what they are trying to convey to you, and not so much on how they are saying it. “Protect” their conversational turn by not letting others speak for them, but make sure that you get your turn to talk, too! Conversation can happen during any unplanned time throughout the day such as, when you are waiting in the grocery.  By helping our children develop more sustained and meaningful social communication, we will safeguard the precious gift of face-to-face conversation with each other.


Article provided in support by the Kelowna Child Care Society

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