I love working with babies and toddlers. It is amazing the amount of learning and change that occurs in just three short years! Parents often ask me what they can do to help encourage their child’s speech and language skills along, and over the years, I’ve developed this list of skill areas to focus on:
- Playing with Sound
Infants begin exploring their mouth and playing with vocalizations at a very early age. Initially, we see babies “coo” with mostly vowel sounds, and later, this evolves into “babbling” with consonant sounds. Rather than focusing on specific vocabulary words, feel free to just play with sounds around your baby. Those “oohs,” “ahhs,” and “shhh” sounds you are making will encourage your baby to do the same. Make sound effects, blow raspberries, and sing a silly string of sounds. Show your baby that making sounds is fun!
- Vocalization on Command
Around the same time that babies start to babble, they figure out that they can control the sounds that they make. They start to understand the back and forth dynamic of communication, and you might notice that your baby starts to “talk back” when spoken to. You can encourage this by leaving ample pauses in your interactions to allow your baby to vocalize. I call these “windows of opportunity.” As you are playing, be sure to periodically provide windows in order to give your child a chance to chime in. You can also try waiting for a vocalization before handing your child a desired toy or snack. Don’t worry about the specific sound at this point—just wait for your baby to vocalize, and then reinforce by promptly handing over the item.
Once your baby starts engaging more with you, he will start to figure out that language can be predictable. He will start to anticipate when you are going to say something. The best examples are “Ready Set GO” and “Peek-a-BOO.” Try leaving a long pause after “Peek….a…..”. Wait for your child to vocalize before you say “Boo!”
As your child starts to understand how to control her vocalizations, she will begin to imitate sounds and words that you say. The best way to encourage this is to provide repeated models of the same target, without a lot of extra “fluff.” For example, while building with blocks, simply model the word “on” each time you stack a block on the tower. While it might be your instinct to narrate every little detail (“Watch mommy put the blue block on top of the yellow block!”), your baby will actually be more likely to imitate if you give him repeated opportunities to attempt the same sounds. This is also an easy thing to do with books! Instead of reading the actual words on the page, pick a word to say, or an object to point out, on each page.
5. Predictable Sequences
Children love predictability! As you are playing, create predictable sequences with language that is appropriate to the context. For example, while playing with a slide, model “Up, Up, Up, Up, Weeeeeeeeee, Down!” as your child (or a doll!) climbs up the ladder and slides down. This is also great to do in books! Choose books that say the same word or phrase on each page. (ex: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury or Brown Bear Brown Bear by Eric Carle)
- Verbal Requesting
Once your child has a few words, you can start to encourage him to use these words to request. Place objects on high shelves or in containers that he can’t open himself. Wait to perform a desired action or give a desired object until he verbalizes. We naturally tend to teach kids the names of things (nouns) first, but I actually recommend that we teach a “core vocabulary” of action words first. These are words that can be applied in many contexts. For example, if I teach my child the word “eat,” that can apply to many different things: “eat apple”,”eat noodle”, “more eat”,”mommy eat”, “all done eat”, etc. If I teach my child the word “cracker”, he can request and label a cracker….and that is about it! By teaching words that can be used in a variety of contexts, we are give our child the advantage of more opportunities in a day to use that word successfully.
- Carrier Phrases
After your little one develops a sizeable repertoire of words, she will start to string words together, and soon after that, use two-word phrases. You can encourage this by modeling “carrier phrases.” Take one word and pair it with many different words:
With a noun: “ball in,” “roll ball,” “kick ball,” “my ball,” “ball all gone,” “blue ball,” “big ball,” “ball go,” etc.
With a verb: “open door,” “open mouth,” “open eyes,” “mommy open,” “open please,” “don’t open,” etc.
With a preposition: “foot in,” “in house,” “mommy in,” “ball in,” “in again,” “not in,” etc.
With an adjective: “big house,” “big truck,” “big bite,” “too big,” “not big,” etc.
Now the fun begins! Once your toddler is putting two, three or even four words together, now is the time for expansion! When he makes a comment, add one-to-two words and throw it back to him. For example, if he says “Firetruck!”, you can say “Red firetruck!” or “Firetruck go fast!” You can also use this to model more complete sentences. For example, if he says “Dog run!”, you could say “The dog is running!”
As all of these wonderful speech and language skills are coming together, your child will start to make connections between different concepts. You can help her with this by commenting on the things she says. For instance, if she points out an ice cream shop, you might remind her that she ate ice cream at the beach last week. This will foster conversational skills, as well as help solidify concepts such as categorization, and comparing, and contrasting.
As your child approaches the age of three, you will see that he is starting to sound more and more like a little person! Move away from “yes-no” questions, and start asking “what,” “who,” “where,” “when,” “how,” and “why?”. Try to keep your child talking about the same topic for at least three-to-four exchanges before moving on. For example, instead of asking “Did you have fun at school today?”, try asking “Who did you play with at school?”, “What did you play?”, “Where did you sit?”, etc. This strategy leaves the door open for language learning.
Of course, it is important to remember that every child is on his or her own timeline. Some kids sail through these phrases with ease, while others seem to chug along at a slower pace. These strategies are intended to empower parents to be proactive with their child’s language development. If you feel your child ‘s speech and language skills are not where they should be, a pediatric speech language-pathologist can perform an assessment, and advise whether or not therapy might be beneficial.
-Elizabeth Clark McKenzie, MS, CCC-SLP