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Encouraging Language Development in Young Children

Pre-linguistic Skills

Before producing verbal language, there are many pre-linguistic skills that your child must develop first. In order for your child to progress, they will need to communicate through imitating sounds and gestures, paying attention to their surroundings, and taking turns.

Imitation

Imitation allows the child to learn new things by watching the people around them. Before the child starts to copy your actions, their communication partner must first model this behavior. For instance, if your baby is clapping their hands, you can say “clap” and copy their action. When you imitate their actions, it gives them an example of and encourages back-and-forth interaction. After you take your turn clapping, you can wait expectantly and look at your child to see if they repeat the action. If they do, encourage or praise them and continue to take turns clapping. If they don’t imitate you immediately, you can use your hands to help them clap again. Make sure to celebrate with your child when they imitate your actions because this is the first step to reciprocal and effective communication.

Gestures

A child begins communicating through gestures by showing, giving, and pointing. To encourage the use of gestures, use them yourself! When talking to your baby, be sure to hold up or point to objects you are talking about. You can also use gestures to demonstrate the meaning of your words. For example, you could demonstrate the meaning of “eat” by putting your hand up to your mouth or rubbing your tummy to indicate hunger. It is very important to use gestures with words to help reinforce the meaning and context of what you’re trying to communicate. If you see your child using a gesture, imitate it and add a verbal response to let the child know you have received their intended message. Your response to their actions will foster the skills needed to have a back-and-forth communicative interaction.

Joint Attention

The key to communication is reciprocal, back-and-forth interaction. Before a back-and-forth interaction can occur, the child must have joint attention skills. This means that they will need to look towards an indicated person or object and listen to their communication partner. To encourage shared attention, start with a toy or activity that highly motivates them and join in on the fun. You can start by simply sitting with your child while they play. Next, attempt to take a quick turn with the desired object to model appropriate back-and-forth interaction. Some children have difficulty sharing their toys. If this is the case, start with very short turns and build up their tolerance as time goes on. One activity that I highly recommend to encourage joint attention is reading. Pick up a book that they are interested in and make sure to point to and talk about what they are looking at. Not only will this encourage them to listen to you talk, it will give you the opportunity to use gestures to help them look in a shared direction.

Expressive Language Development

Once imitation, gestures, and joint attention have been mastered, you may start to notice that your child is using more verbal language. Although they are using some verbal language, they may not understand long and complex sentences. Be sure to use simple and short phrases when you first begin interacting with your child to ensure better results. Once you start hearing your child make different sounds and produce words, it’s time to increase your child’s vocabulary, sentence length, and understanding of language. To do this, you need to make communication tempting during play and routines, label objects, and expand on what your child is saying.

Play and Routines

It is important to remember that a child is not going to start communicating if they are not interested in our interactions. They are not going to start using words simply because an adult asks them to repeat something. It is our job, as adults, to facilitate interesting opportunities that will entice our kiddos to initiate that conversation themselves. Start by setting aside some time each day to play and interact with your child without distractions or interruptions. The best time for you to interact with your child is while they are playing and during everyday routines, such as bed, bath, and meal time. When you are playing with your baby, make sure to get on their level and interact face-to-face. Being in your child’s line of sight is important because this enables them to better pay attention to a shared activity and look at your face when producing words. You attend better when there is something in front of you, right? Don’t be afraid to get on the floor with your child so that your interactions can be more effective. When playing with your child, routine can help your baby anticipate what is going to happen next. For example, when playing with cars, the adult can say “ready, set, go!” every single time. Eventually the baby will anticipate “ready, set, go!” and look toward the adult, showing that they have joint attention during this activity! Once they have joint attention, start pausing and waiting to see if they will finish the routine phrase. The parent can say “ready, set…….” and then wait expectantly. Eventually, your child will realize that they are now becoming a part of the routine and may prompt them to finish with “go!”.

Label, Label, Label

While interacting with kids in play or routine, it is very important to label everything. When you have an object in your hand, put it beside your face and tell the child what it is. For example, if you are playing with your child’s favorite dinosaur toys, pick one up, place it next to your face, wait for them to look, then simply say “dinosaur”. Labeling with objects next to your face is an effective tool for showing your child how the words are formed with your mouth. Not only are they seeing the object and hearing what that object is called, they are physically watching your mouth form the word. Once your child starts to label objects themselves, be sure to praise them. It is always a good strategy to use positive reinforcement to encourage the continuation of a behavior.

Expanding

Once your child starts labeling objects and learning new vocabulary words, it is time to increase the number of words they are saying at one time. A great strategy to increase sentence length is to expand on what they are saying. For instance, during your morning routine, your child may say “brush” when they want to brush their teeth. To expand on this word, the parent can simply add an extra word to the utterance. Some examples of expanding the word “brush” could be saying things such as “want brush” or “brush teeth”. Adding an extra word to your child’s utterances will model new ways of expressing themselves. This strategy can help expand your child’s sentences from one word, all the way up to full blown sentences. Once your child is consistently using two-word phrases, it is time to start modeling three-word sentences. And once they are using three-word phrases, start modeling four-word sentences, and so on…

In conclusion, there is a simple process to encourage your children to express themselves more effectively. First, start with building up their joint attention skills to ensure that they are paying attention to your words and actions. Paying attention is the first step to imitating the new skills they will learn from the people around them. Next, begin working on making their gestural communication more functional. Children will start with grabbing objects, pulling their communication partner, and then finally pointing to desired objects. Once these non-verbal communication skills have been mastered, it’s time to start labeling and expanding phrases during playtime and routine. It may take some time and practice, but with some effort and consistency, I am sure that there will be progress! No matter what stage of communication your child is in, take your time and enjoy the time you will spend interacting with each other.

– Carmen Krystofiak M.S. SLP-CFY