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.
Children possess an innate capacity for learning language. In most cases, they will listen, absorb, understand, and repeat what they hear without any overt teaching. (Just ask any parent who’s accidentally let an f-bomb slip in front of their toddler!) In today’s competitive society, though, most parents want to do everything they can to improve their kids’ skills in all areas of development. It’s true that parents are their child’s first teacher, but you don’t need a classroom to use these communication-boosting activities. In fact, the less structured the activity, the less pressure your child feels to perform, and the more successful they’ll be! Here are a few of my favorites:
Talk, talk, talk
This may seem obvious, but as I explained in my introductory post, I have had parents admit to me that they don’t know how to talk to their child. It may seem silly at first to narrate every mundane event of every day to your newborn, but by the time you’ve got a talking toddler, you’ll be glad it’s a habit you’ve developed. (There’s a reason “diaper” was among my child’s first words. We talked about it multiple times a day every single day.) Talk about what you’re doing all day: changing diapers (“Ooh, is it a cold wipe?”); feeding and dressing the baby (“Mmm, yummy pears!”); going for walks (“See the big bus? Lots of people are riding the bus to work today.”). Talk about what your child is doing: “That’s a big ball. Roll it!” “Wow! You’re crawling so fast!” “What a messy baby! You have squash all over your face!” Be descriptive. Use a variety of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Use variation in sentence length and type. The more fluent* and interesting the language, the more attentive to it your child will be.
Read, read, read
Speaking of fluency, reading is a fantastic way to expose your child to sentence types they might not otherwise hear in everyday talk. Many children’s books rhyme, which, although not typical of everyday speech, is incredibly interesting to little ears. The repetition and sameness of the story also helps little ones learn. If you’re reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example, a bear is a bear is a bear, every single time. But don’t feel like you have to stick to the script. Sometimes a book may have wonderful illustrations but boring or archaic writing. So make up your own story, or at least use your own words, and let the pictures do the rest. You can also let your child flip the pages and simply point out and label the illustrations. There are books intended to build vocabulary, usually with one picture or photo per page and a single word, but any book can teach vocabulary if that’s what you focus on.
We sing a lot. Especially if Missy is having a hard time waiting for something. I simply make up a song about what it is we’re waiting for (making dinner, usually) to pass the time. I also sing about getting dressed, going to the park, or any funny or silly thing she does throughout the day. If you’re not big on making up songs, turn on the radio or your favorite playlist or go with the classics. Music and rhythm are especially engaging for children, and a child who is engaged is a child who is listening and learning.
Offering choices is one of my favorite strategies for a multitude of reasons. Toddlers are becoming independent little people, and they want to feel like they have some control over their world. Giving them a choice between two things you’ve already decided are okay makes them feel like they’re in charge for once. So when your little one is frantically pointing at the fridge, saying, “Uh, uh, uh!” grab two things you know they like (grapes and cheese, for example) and ask them, “Which one do you want?” For a child who doesn’t have many words yet, this is an opportunity for them to communicate effectively by pointing, but it also gives you a chance to model the vocabulary in hopes that they’ll imitate. And for a child with more vocabulary, it’s a chance to take the overwhelming choice of a fridge full of food and narrow it down to two favorites. (If neither is what they wanted, they’ll be sure to let you know!) And it works in most situations throughout the day, from which toys they want to play with to which pajamas they want to wear.
Talking and talking and talking is crucial for you child to learn to talk (see above), but there’s also a time to shut up. How can your child express what she knows if you never give her a chance? Sometimes that looks like silently observing your child as he plays, waiting for him to speak up on his own. And sometimes, it can require a bit of prompting. As I mentioned in part 2, prompted use is an important step in language development. The example I used was playing with cars, using “Ready, set, go!” in repetition and then waiting for your child to fill in the final word after a prompt. This is just one example. You can use this technique while reading a favorite book, on your child’s favorite page or with a phrase that repeats over and over. (The Very Hungry Caterpillar: “He was a beautiful…” “Butterfly!”) You can also use it with something as simple as going up and down a slide, repeating the words “up” and “down” as your child climbs the ladder or stairs and then slides, eventually stopping after “up” and waiting for your child to say “down” at the appropriate time.
Okay, it sounds cruel, but sabotage is really just playing dumb so that your child has an opportunity to tell you something’s not quite right. It’s a form of prompting, but requires a bit more cognitive ability than “ready, set…wait,” so it tends to work better with children who already have a basic vocabulary, as well as an understanding of sequencing. Here’s an example: You take your child to the bathroom, undress them, and put them in the tub. You throw in your child’s favorite bathtime toys, but wait–you forgot something. “Water, Mommy!” “Uh-oh!” or “No water,” might be your child’s response–and that’s exactly the point. You play the fool so that your little smarty pants can tell you all about it. Like putting socks on your child’s hands instead of their feet, or giving them milk in a bowl instead of a cup. It’s fun, and your child will probably think it’s hilarious.
*I’m no expert on bilingualism (although we are attempting to raise Missy with two languages), but everything I’ve read and heard on the subject stresses speaking to your child in your native language. A child who hears broken English or Spanish or French will speak that way.