Ashley Thurn, MS,OTR/L
Language is key when it comes to understanding and connecting with your child. From my experience, both professional and non-professional, I have found so many parents looking for guidance on the topic of speech.
"She only points or cries to tell me what she wants."
"My child is two and only says a few words but his two-year-old friend down the street talks in full sentences!"
The bottom line is always "How can I help my child to start talking?"
I can imagine the frustration coming from both ends when a child is unable to effectively communicate his/her wants and needs.
While it is important to remember that every child develops speech differently, I also recognize it is becoming a growing area of concern to parents, teachers and even pediatricians. With Autism on the rise, speech screenings are becoming more commonplace in the classroom and in the pediatrician's office.
As an occupational therapist, this isn't the typical topic for me so I'd like to give credit where credit is due when broaching the subject of speech. I am beyond grateful to all of the Speech-Language Pathologists that I have had the pleasure of working alongside in my career who have taught me SO much. I truly understand that they are the experts when it comes to speech and language development in young children. I still have so much to learn in this area.
With that said, I do feel that over time I have developed a handful of easy and practical tips for encouraging language in young children. These are techniques that I have used in my practice and with my own children that I have found to be effective.
So if you're a parent who desires to communicate more easily with your child, this is for you! If you dedicate yourself to involving these language tools in your day-to-day routine, I guarantee you will begin to see some positive changes in your child's speech.
**These tips can be used with children of all ages. They can be used with typically developing children or children with disabilities.
Before language and communication can emerge, there are a few building blocks that need to be established. Those building blocks are eye contact and joint attention.
Eye Contact - Eye contact is one of the first things we try to establish in therapy with children who have difficulty with language and social skills. Children on the autism spectrum are infamous for avoiding it at all costs. Not only does eye contact acknowledge the other person, it lets them know you are ready to communicate with them. Eye contact is essentially a precursor to communication.
Here are some easy ways to encourage eye contact:
- Place yourself directly in front of them while still maintaining a comfortable personal space for them, then say "Hi!"
- With other children who need a more concrete directive, "look at my eyes" is effective.
- Play "Where's your nose? Where's mommy's nose?" and continue finding all the other parts of the face.
- Play "funny faces" in the mirror. Your child can establish eye contact with you in the mirror. (1)
- For older children who have difficulty with eye-contact, you can say "What color are my eyes?"
Joint Attention- Joint attention is another precursor for language to begin developing. In other words, if your child has yet to master this skill, developing speech would be very difficult, if not impossible. Joint attention is the ability of a child to look or pay attention to the same thing as you are (joining your attention together on the same item). It is the ability for the child to respond appropriately when you point at a picture and say "Look!"
Here are some basic ways to encourage joint attention:
- Pointing to pictures in a book. (i.e. "Look! A car!")
- While holding your child, carry them in the garden and point to different objects seen (i.e. Look! flowers!)
If your child has already mastered eye contact and joint attention, then let's move onto some easy and practical tips!
Tips To Encourage Language
Reciprocal Play & Turn Taking - This is one of my favorite ways to establish two-way communication with a young child. Parents are often surprised to know they should be practicing this skill with their child. Believe it or not, taking turns does not come naturally, as toddlers and young children are more internally focused.
Here are a few easy ways to encourage this skill:
- Roll a small ball back and forth with your child. I like to have them sit down with legs open to catch the ball first. Then say, "One, two, three!" and roll the ball to them. This is every babies favorite game. It is so simple and wonderful because it establishes eye contact, rapport, turn taking and even a little impulse control as the child waits for his/her turn. Rolling a truck or car back and forth is the same idea.
- If child is engaged in quiet play by themselves with their favorite toy, simply ask them if you could have a turn. Promise to give it right back when they are finished. Praise them for sharing when you give it back. "Thank you so much for sharing! You let me borrow your favorite car and I gave it right back."
- Once they have practiced this skill at lengths with you and you feel it is now an established skill, let them practice sharing with a sibling or maybe another child at the playground.
Involve Language in Daily Routines - If you want to encourage your toddler to talk, you need to involve words in your every day routine. Pick a few easy words or phrases that you know your child is paying attention to during each daily routine (i.e. brushing teeth, bathtime, mealtime, leaving the house). Say these words or phrases to your child every single day, the more repetition the better! Remember, the key here is to find words or items you know your child is attending to, visually at that particular time, and then label it for them.
Here are some examples of words and phrases to involve in daily routines:
- Bath time: splash, water, bubbles, wash, soap, clean up toys, all done bath, all clean
- Mealtime: fork, spoon, plate, peas, eggs, cookie, apple, banana, eat, more, yummy, drink, water
- Leaving the house: shoes/put on shoes, let's go, bye-bye, ready, car, shirt on, car-seat, buckle on
Make Fun Sounds & Pair Words With Movement - This is easily my favorite way to encourage speech and the most effective in my experience. There is a reason that toddlers often learn how to make their animal sounds earlier than saying actual words. It is because sounds are easier for young children to learn than words. So why not take advantage of this and use fun sounds during play with your child.
Toddlers do so well imitating speech when it is paired with a movement or an action.
Here are my go-to action words for encouraging speech:
- Say "zoom, zoom, zoom!" when making lines with a crayon
- Say "vroom, vroom!" when pushing a truck
- Say "Jump, jump!" when jumping on the bed or trampoline
- Say "Yay!" when clapping
- Say "Pop, Pop" when popping bubbles with your finger
- Say "Choo-choo" when pushing train on the track
- Say "beep, beep!" when pushing horn on a toy truck
- Say "bang, bang, bang" when banging two blocks together
- Say "up, up, up!" as child climbs stairs at the playground
Eliminate Background Noise and Visual Distractions - Eliminating over-stimulating visuals and loud background sounds is going to enhance your child's auditory attention to what is being said. If you have the television on all day long while you are trying to communicate with your child, there is a good chance the television is becoming a barrier to his/her comprehension of what you are saying. Many children have a difficult time filtering out what is being said vs what is going on in the background. Basically what happens is the background noise and the talking all blend together and it just sounds like noise to them. Keep TV time to a minimum and try to speak to him/her when it is quiet so that they can properly pay attention to you.
Point and Repeat- Point to things in your every day routine and repeat them three times. This might feel silly at first but the more your child hears the word, the quicker they are going to comprehend it and be able to repeat it back to you. Example would be "Sit, sit sit" when you want them to sit down to put their shoes on. Or pointing at the pictures of a book, saying "Ball, ball, ball."
Imitate Desired Speech - When your child makes a gesture, or cries/whines and you know what it is that they want, imitate the speech that you desire them to say. For example, if they are asking for milk by crying, say "Oh, you want milk! Say 'milk please!'" Even if you child doesn't say it initially, continue to repeat the verbal command at least three times before giving it to them. After you continue this drill every time, day after day, when they request their milk, they will eventually formulate something that resembles a utterance of the word 'milk' or 'please' instead of crying/whining/pointing. Remember, from their perspective, if they have learned that they get what they want just by pointing and crying, then there is no need for them to use words.
Simple Books & Puzzles with One Picture - I have a big qualm with baby books that have very busy and visually distracting pages! Choose books that have one familiar household item on the page against a white backdrop for babies under the age of 1. That way, when you point and say the word, they know what you are pointing to. Babies don't have the ability to filter out visual distractions like us adults can. When there is too much going on or the items in the book don't resemble familiar items in their world, they will quickly loose interest in reading. Even drawings can be too distract and unfamiliar to babies and young children, which is why real pictures are best.
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Formboard puzzles starting with 3 pictures are best. Again, familiar items are best. I love the Melissa and Doug formboard puzzles. Start with 3 pictures and work your way up to those with 9 pictures. Take all of the pieces out with the child, saying "take out, take out, take out" as you lay the pieces down. Then, pick up a puzzle piece and say "Here is the dog! Where does the dog go?" If they don't find it or guess wrong, that's okay. Say, "Oh here's the dog!" and assist them in matching it into the correctly hole. The next time, your child can try it themselves. Give helpful, short, verbal commands such as "turn, turn turn" or "put it in".
Assist with the First Sound - If you are trying to teach a specific word, or if you notice your child attempting to say a word but having difficulty, this is often helpful. If they are trying to say the word "more", help them by saying "mmmmore" annunciating the "m" sound. If they are trying to say "sit", help them by saying "ssssit" annunciating the "s" sound. They might not get it the first time they try, but with practice they will!
I hope you enjoyed these practical tips for helping your child initiate speech! I am confident that with more words being exchanged between you and your child, your relationship with one another will grow even stronger.
1. Mawhinney, L. & McTeague, M. S. (2004) Early Language Development. Handouts an Activities with Bonus CD-ROM. Super Duper Publications.