Did you know that your days are filled with little opportunities to encourage language growth in your child?
As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I work with families to build strong foundations to nurture their child’s speech and language skills. As a mom to two young boys myself, I understand how parents strive to encourage their kids’ development and want to help families take advantage of those small moments to build language.
Here are six of my favorite strategies for growing language skills in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers:
Waiting may appear to be easy, but it can be a tall task when working with children. So often we want to fill the silence and small moments in our days with our children (which can be very helpful, don’t get me wrong!), however, there are times when simply waiting a few extra seconds can encourage your child to use his or her words to request, comment, or ask a question.
For example, if you are completing a puzzle with your toddler, you may be talking about it, “I see a green bug. It fits right there.” Perhaps your toddler is making eye contact with you, or quietly working on the puzzle. You might feel inclined to continue describing, but I encourage you to wait (count three to five seconds in your head — I know, it seems like an eternity in the moment!) to allow space for him to jump into the conversation.
Your child is processing all of the words and information you are expressing, and those extra few seconds may make the difference in him chiming in and adding to the conversation.
2. Expand Your Child’s Utterances
Around the age of two, we expect children to use 50 or more words consistently, and we also expect that they start combining words to form short phrases, such as “more milk,” or “brown dog.” To encourage this, expand on your child’s one word utterances. When she says “woof,” you can respond, “Woof! The dog says woof. Let’s pet the dog.”
This strategy is wonderful because you are validating your child’s initial communicative intent and acknowledging that you heard her and want to hear more. While we look for those phrases to start around the age of two, expanding on utterances is a great tool as soon as your little one is using words.
3. Watch and Listen
Children give us lots of communicative intent that may be quiet, if not silent – we just need to watch and listen to notice. One way your child is communicating with you is through eye contact. When your child makes eye contact with you, she is recognizing you as a communication partner or someone with whom she wants to engage. Smiling and recognizing that eye contact is a great way to encourage further communication.
Another quiet communicative intent is triadic gaze. This occurs when your child looks at you, looks at an object, and looks back at you, as if to say, “Mom, look at this block!” It is a cue from your child that he wants to bring your attention to the object, or that he is “telling” you about the toy. When he does this, feel free to expand on it. “Blocks! I like the blue block. We can stack the blocks.”
As your baby gets older, pointing and/or gesturing starts to be a preferred form of communication. Make sure you verbalize the object to which your child is pointing or gesturing. If she is pointing to a banana, you can take the opportunity to say “Oh, you’d like the banana? I can peel it for you.” This is a great way to build vocabulary and model language use.
This one is simple: talk your baby throughout the day. It might feel odd at first, as though you are talking to yourself, but your baby is a little sponge and is truly picking up on everything you are saying.
If you are preparing a snack, tell him about it, “It’s time to eat. You are sitting so nicely in your chair. I am making your snack. I am cutting us some cucumbers. Should we dip them in hummus?”
It is helpful to keep your phrases or sentences relatively simple, and to speak slowly and clearly. As mentioned above, leaving space between phrases for your child to comment, even with babies, is critical. A “comment” from a baby may be a smile, an open ended vocalization or babble, or simply eye contact. Repeating short phrases within your narration also helps with retention.
5. Make the Most of Routines
We know that routines are hugely beneficial for young children, and there are many wonderful ways to capitalize on them and make them language-centric. Whether it is meal time, bath time, or any other routine that you and your child participate in together, there are many options to promote speech and language.
Narrating through the routine and keeping the narrations similar day-to-day will set the stage for a familiar experience for your child. When getting ready to leave the house, try to keep your narratives consistent, “We are going to get in the car, let’s get your shoes and coat.”
Keeping the transitions into, during, and out of the routine the same each time is a great way to build language because similar routines allow for the use of the same vocabulary, allowing it to become more pertinent for your child. Having your child hear words and see what the word represents (i.e. “shoes,” “open,” “coat”) adds to the salience of the vocabulary.
6. Use Music to Build Language
Music is an incredibly powerful way to build language skills in your child. You notice that children, even those who are not yet verbal, often light up (smile, clap, dance, sway, etc.) as soon as they hear music. It’s easy to build on this interest and motivation to make an impact on their speech and language skills.
The best way to begin is to choose a simple, common song that your child seems to really enjoy. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Row, Row Your Boat are great places to start. Sing the song slowly while your child is engaged and making eye contact with you (if you only get through one verse, that is just fine). Sing the song the same way a few times in a row, so your child begins to understand the rhythm and intonation in the song.
Incorporating movement is a helpful learning tool for your child as well. Rocking, hand motions, and dancing are great ways to keep your child engaged during music time. If you are using hand motions (such as in Itsy Bitsy Spider), sing the song once while you complete the motions. Then, sing the song again, taking your child’s hands in yours to teach the corresponding motions. You can also incorporate instruments (shakers and rattles are perfect) as your child gets older.
Birth to age four are such critical language learning years for all children. These day-to-day, simple activities can be a low-pressure and fun way to take advantage of all that learning potential in your baby, toddler, or preschooler.