DISCLAIMER: I am not a speech therapist. I have a master’s degree in Speech and Hearing Sciences and have spent my career working with children who have hearing impairment and/or language delays. I am happy to attempt to answer any questions you may have, but if you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, please contact your local early intervention agency or talk to your child’s pediatrician.
Language development for children with normal hearing begins at birth, even before birth, actually, with the rising and falling intonation of their mother’s voice, long before they have a context to understand the words. Most children, even those who are delayed in their language development, will follow the same blueprint for learning language, the same set of skills, in roughly the same order. The timeline may be very different from one child to the next, but the sequence should be the same. Crying, eye contact, cooing, babbling, imitating sounds. All of these come before the first word is uttered. As for words themselves, there are four steps to acquiring them: comprehension, imitation, prompted use, and spontaneous use.
Comprehension: This is what your child is able to understand. She shows you this by pointing, gesturing, looking, or otherwise appropriately responding to questions or requests, such as “Where’s your nose?” “Go get a diaper,” or “Show me your shoe.” But she is constantly learning and understanding new words without necessarily showing you what those are. She picks up on the words you use in context long before she’s able to say them herself. And she won’t start saying new words until she understands what they mean.
Imitation: This is a hugely important step in language learning. So important that during my first year of teaching at a school for the deaf, our principal wanted everyone to focus mostly on imitation (we were all new teachers, and she was easing us in, but this was also crucial for our students to learn). Children learn to say new words through practice, and the best way to practice is to repeat words they hear. So you say “cup,” (or “shoe” or “book” or “eat”) and your child repeats it. All day long.
Prompted use: The next step in practicing new words is to say them with a hint or a prompt. You have to build up to this, of course, using imitation first, but stopping and waiting is a good way for your child to start to show you what they can really do. For example, you might play with a car, saying “Ready, set, go!” and pushing the car along the floor. Your child might start to repeat one or more of those words after you. Then you start to say “Ready, set…” and wait. When your child is ready, she’ll say “go!” with this prompt and delight in effectively making the car race along the floor on her command.
Spontaneous use: This is when things start to get really fun, when your child can tell you what they want or the things they’re interested in by the words they say completely on their own. This might look like pointing and telling you “ball,” or requesting to be picked up by raising their arms and saying the word “up.” When it comes to word counts, this is usually what your child’s doctor or pediatrician is talking about. These are the words your child can use to really express themselves.
So, just to give you an example with a single word–say, “eye”–this is what those four steps look like. After several times (over days or weeks) playfully pointing, labeling, and asking your child, “Where’s your eye?”, she is able to point to her own eye or yours (comprehension). With a little more practice, she can repeat the word “eye” (or something close) after you say it (imitation). Next, you point to your own eye and ask, “What’s this?” Your child responds “eye” without you having to say it first (prompted use). Finally, while playing with a baby doll or stuffed animal, your child points to the eyes and says “eye” without any help or coaching from you (spontaneous use).
These steps repeat, overlapping each other, as your child learns new words, phrases, and increasingly complex sentences. Each step is an important part of the process, essential for moving on to the next. In my next post, I’ll offer specific strategies, using these steps, to increase your child’s use of single words and phrases. And, as always, I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments.