Language Tips

Language tips to help infants, toddlers, and preschoolers learn to talk.

Start with the S.I.M.P.L.E. Program NOW! (Sign, Imitate, Model, Play, Label, Expand). Listed below are the 12 best ways to entice a child to interact, communicate and learn to talk.

1. Sign and use gestures to introduce your child to the power of communication. Signing is not only an enjoyable and educational activity for children, but there is also a growing body of empirical evidence describing the positive effects of its use and ability to facilitate oral language. Keep in mind that the key is communication. Our goal is not to become proficient users of ASL but rather use the signing as a bridge to oral language. Therefore it is important to combine or pair signs and words together. Language actually develops in three modes: gestures, oral, and written and we learn to use these modes in this order. Despite the many benefits described in the literature regarding the use of sign language, none compares to the neurological stimulation it provides aiding in overall brain functioning. When children pair a motor movement with a verbalization neural pathways are established facilitating the process of speaking.

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2. Iimitate the sounds, words, gestures, and signs that your child uses. Imitation validates your child and what he says. Imitation is essential in learning to talk and is the way we learn how to do almost everything. If your child can’t imitate your sounds and words, start with having him imitate actions and gestures. Better yet, you copy what he’s doing. Make it an interaction that flows back and forth so he begins to learn the process of how to take turns. The back and forth nature of this interaction forms the initial stages of conversation. You can work on this by modeling or repeating sounds your child makes so that he can begin to imitate those sounds and words. Not only will this validate his sense of self but will encourage him to make new word attempts if he feels empowered and successful at his verbalization attempts.

3. Model new words to your child using a sing-song voice called “parentese”. Use simple phrases. This strategy is supported by research and is similar to what is used by mothers all over the world with their new babies in a brand new language. You can use exaggerated expression, a high-pitched sing-song voice called “motherese” or “parentese”, along with rhythmic chanting, songs, natural play, gestures, in an effort to support your child. You are accentuating the “motherese” in conjunction with playful, animated expression, large broad gestures, animated facial expression, miming, and voice inflection. I recommend using “sheltered-language” which means you slow down, use consistent short phrases called “telegraphic speech” to reinforce basic phrases and concept development in the target language. For example, the child is looking out the window and sees a bird in a tree. Parents may be tempted to use too much language as in, “Look at the bird flying up in the tree. He’s got red wings and is flying so high. Now he’s perched on the branch”. Although this type of narration is appropriate at times, if your child is struggling with language you want to use simplified utterances with elongated vowel sounds as in, “Looook, the biiiiiird… it’s in the treeee”.

4. Play, play, play and then play some more! Play is what kids are all about and is an important strategy that lays the foundation for language learning. For the youngest of children play involves social interactions which are instrumental in learning communicative intent. These skills need to be developed in children in order to avoid language delays and/or develop a passive communication style. Students who struggle with language are at greater risk for academic failure when the language delay is accompanied by a passive communication style. I see this quite often in children who have experienced limited social play or social interactions as infants. Favorite games like peek-a-boo, pat-a-cake, and Eensie Weensie Spider are ideal for infants. Get on the floor and play with your toddler using developmentally appropriate toys or you can improvise and use household items creatively as toys. Play time is most appropriate for short periods several times per day while holding them on your lap, in the bathtub, on a blanket on the floor, or even in a high chair after they’ve finished eating. You can sing simple songs, do finger plays, or enjoy movement games. Preschoolers enjoy pretend games.

5. Label objects in your child’s environment. Labeling is crucial in helping your child begin to build a core vocabulary. Researchers are suggesting a child enter Kindergarten with 5,000 to 6,000 words in their verbal repertoire. You can start with the first 100 words which include objects, primarily nouns but don’t forget to include people, action words (verbs), early location words (prepositions) and early pronouns (my, mine). Labeling includes two components. As parents we are often tempted to focus on the expressive aspect by asking “What’s that?” which is important but equally important is ensuring the child understands the words by requesting “Go get the ___, or Give mommy the ___”. Parents you can easily present the word and the sign at the same time. We’re all guilty of using non-specific words (e.g., “give me that”, “no not that, this”). Be aware of using specific labels when you interact with your child.

6. Expand what your child says. Typically when your child has a core vocabulary of 35-50 words and is able to imitate you are ready to move onto expansion. If your child has less than 50 words they may require an in between step such as repetition or expansion of words already in their vocabulary (e.g., up, up, up). If they’re at the stage where they are ready to combine two different words, you want to include social words such as “bye-bye” or “hi” with familiar people or objects (e.g., “bye-bye daddy”, “hi doggie”). You can begin to expand by combining requesting words “please” “more” with nouns (e.g., “more cookie”, “milk please”). You can add verbs “eat”, “go” as in (e.g., “eat cookie”, “go sleep”, “car go”). Expanding with pronouns is a good idea for toddlers especially during the “my” or “mine” phase (e.g. “my ball”, “my shoe.”)

7. Provide choices. Two main advantages of providing choices are that the child is required to respond and it gives the child a sense of control and power in his life. Everything is a choice. The child is forced to acknowledge you by reaching, looking, or saying what they want. In any given play activity you can provide lots of different choices. For example, when playing you can ask (e.g., “Do you want the train or the truck?”, “Do you want the big train or the little train?” “What should we use the tracks or the bridge?” “Do you want it to go fast or slow?” “Do you want one car or lots of cars?”). By requesting a choice you are providing opportunities for your child to increase their vocabulary. Your child is forced to respond simply by offering two acceptable responses. Providing choices also gives your child a sense of control and may reduce tantrums (e.g., “Which shirt do you want to wear today? Do you want the red shirt or the blue shirt?”). For the child that only points and grunts, giving him choices allows him to express his needs or wants with less frustration on both parent and child’s part.

8. Repetition is key to learning. For any complex skill, whether you are an infant or adult, repetition is needed. In babies, language stimulates brain growth and frequent exposure is necessary to build the “pathway” or memory for new words. As a parent, you hear your child babbling and saying words over and over. This repetition, or rehearsal, leads to learning. Theory behind multisensory learning suggests that we will remember 90% of what we say, see, hear and do, but only 30% if we just hear it. When we incorporate repetition along with signing, song, movement, and play, your child will recall more of what you are teaching him.

9. Withhold to elicit verbalizations. Withholding is an effective technique to use when you want your child to verbalize. For example, when playing with any given item, before the child has the chance to take a turn, you withhold the item prompting or cueing (e.g., “What do you want?”) with the hope that he will say the word. Science and research support the use of this strategy however, specifically encourage no more than 3-5 prompts before you give the child the desired item. If he becomes frustrated or cries at attempt number two, give the child the item, avoid frustration, and continue with your play. The way in which you implement this strategy is important in that you want to maintain a playful, joyful demeanor. Never ever refuse to give your child the item and provoke a tantrum. This is not the point and defeats your goal of getting your child to verbalize.

10. Sing and dance your way to language. What baby doesn’t like to be bounced on your knee or danced on your lap to a song or rhythm? From birth, children are wired for movement and sound. Music is a universal language. Children and parents from all cultures relate to their kids through song and dance. The pattern and the rhythm of the music and dance help stimulate brain growth.

11. Exude joy and delight when interacting with your child. The more enthusiastic you are in your play, the greater results you’ll experience. Sometimes as a parent you might need to “fake it until you feel it” but as soon as you see your child’s smile and twinkle in their eye your efforts will be rewarded.

12. Establish verbal rituals and repeat them during daily routines. When you establish verbal routines you are exposing your child to the same words, phrases and songs for naptime, bath time or bedtime. Saying and doing the same every day will have your child anticipating these familiar rituals. Eventually, you can wait and pause for your child to fill in a word such as in the song (e.g., “Twinkle twinkle little ___” and wait as he says “star”). The repeated exposure to these rituals builds memory. These rituals will also bring your child a sense of comfort and security knowing what to expect each day.