Right from birth, babies learn language and communication skills. They develop skills to understand language long before they start saying words. They react to different sounds. Each child will develop these skills at different times, however there is a general development pattern.
All parents can use the following strategies to help encourage the growth of communication in your babies and young children.
- Allow Your Baby To Lead
By following your child’s lead you are in tune with your child’s feelings and need for communication. Watching and waiting will help you decide what your child wants to say and is interested in. It will also give your child the opportunity to express their needs, feelings and interests. Children may need extra time to process what they want to say. By waiting you are also giving your child the opportunity to initiate communication. Following your child’s lead can be achieved in the following ways:
- Observe your baby’s focus of attention, facial expressions and body language
- Wait to give your child time to express themselves
- Listen carefully to your baby’s attempts to communicate
- Give them your undivided attention
- Give them time to initiate an interaction with you. Wait for at least three seconds before and after you provide a model
- Use Short Simple Sentences
Use only the important words when talking with your child. This makes it easier for them to understand and provides them with something they can try to copy.
Instead of: “Now, lets put all the books on the shelf”
Try: “Books on shelf” or “On Shelf”
This gives your child the opportunity to hear language and then practise using it. You can say a word, phrase or short sentence (emphasising the key words) with your child, that they may imitate or comment on. Model words and phrases that your child is likely to attempt.
Parent: “Look, car!”
Parent: “That’s right, big car”
- Expansions – Adding On Words
When your child does say a word or sound, copy their sounds. You can also add words onto what your child says. This enables your child to learn new words and how words are put together. It also acknowledges and confirms what they said in a positive way. Your child is not expected to repeat the longer sentence straight away. Instead it is about exposing them to how we put words together using early grammar forms.
You can do this in different ways:
- Add information/different types of words:
Parent: “Yes, Daddy’s bike”
- Make the sentence complete and correct using appropriate grammar:
Child: “dog jump water”
Parent: “The dog is jumping in the water”
Your child’s attention is often gained and maintained by the exaggerated expression in your voice. Place lots of emphasis on key words to make them stand out for the baby to imitate. Emphasis can also be added with gestures and facial expression.
Parent: “more milk”
Children learn easier when they have heard a new word multiple times. By repeating the same word or phrase your child will find it easier to focus on the new sound or words and try to associate them with what is happening (adding meaning to the new word/sound).
Child: Looking at a fish.
Parent: “That’s a big fish” (use hands to show fish)
- Slow Down Your Speech
By slowing down your own speech rate, you are giving your child a greater opportunity to hear each word that you say. You are also giving your child a better opportunity to match what you are saying with the object or action of interest, so that they can learn the meaning of that new word.
- Show The New Word
It is important that you add language in two ways. First it is important that you commentate and interpret your child’s emotions, actions, wants and interests. By adding language to your child’s play you are modelling to your child how they can express themselves.
It is also important that you add language to build your child’s understanding of the world. You must be explicit when teaching a new word (especially the name of an object), say the word and show it’s meaning.
- Commentate And Narrate
There are times when your child will be playing independently, or they may be around you while you are completing a chore. This is the perfect time to narrate what you are doing, exposing your child to varied types of language. Talk out loud as you are working. Use simple phrases and sentences, talk about what you are doing, what you are feeling and what you are thinking. e.g. you can name the items that you put into to shopping trolley, showing each item to your child.
When singing favourite nursery rhymes or songs, pause half way through. Your child may look at you with a confused expression. Wait for them to say the next word or make the next action before you continue singing. Repeat this again and again, stopping at the same part. This encourages your child to actively join in and communicate that they want more. It is also a great way to practice turn taking.
- Choice Questions
When asking the child questions, give them a choice of two options (binary choice). This helps the child to hear how the two words are said and they don’t need to try and find the word. The child has to attempt to say one option to get what they want.
e.g. Child: “dink”
Parent: “Juice or water””
Child: “Du” (juice)
Parent: “some juice? Okay, here is your juice”
You may need to transition requiring your child to say the word. Initially you can accept your child just pointing or getting something for themselves. However move to requiring your child’s verbal request. Once you move to this stage, be consistent and require your child to repeat the word every time.
- Make More Comments, Ask Less Questions
Instead of asking a question, try making a comment. Sometimes our questions can deter a child from interacting with us, as they may not know the answer, or feel they are being tested.
Combine questions with comments. For every question you ask try to make three comments, modelling language rather than testing language.
- Ask The Right Questions
When you do ask questions, try to avoid asking:
- too many questions
- questions that your child doesn’t have time to answer
- questions that test your child’s knowledge
- questions that are too hard for your child to answer
- questions that don’t reflect what your child is interested in
- questions that answer themselves
Ask questions that:
- your child can understand
- your child can answer
- match your child’s interest
- get your child’s attention
…then wait for your child to formulate a response
Ask simple questions to give your child the opportunity to say more (and provide them with a model for requesting information).
- Asking yes/no questions – these limit the amount of information which the child has to provide.
Parent: “Do you want the ball?
- Re-phrase the question to encourage the child to say more. Use words such as: “what, who, where, how, tell me…”
Parent: “What are you doing?
Child: “playing teddy”
- Respond positively to any communication attempts from your child
- Expect a response, making sure you wait, to give your child enough time to answer or have their turn
- Treat any attempt as a word, interpret what your child is trying to say.
If praised your child is more likely to try again
- Repeat yourself! Expose your child to lots of repetition and opportunities to learn new words!
- Pre-school Communication Workshop by Western Sydney Area Health Service (Date of publication unknown)
- Princess Margret Hospital, Speech Pathology Department – Early Communication Skills Handout (Date of publication unknown)
- Weitzman, E. (2017). It Takes Two to Talk: A practical guide for parents of children with language delays (5th ed.). Toronto, ON: The Hanen Centre.