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10 Strategies for Encouraging Speech & Language Development in Young Children

1. Follow your child’s lead and get down on their level

Children at this age have short attention spans. They love to explore a little bit of everything in their sight! This is normal. Children are motivated to learn language about things they are interested in. So, when playing with your child “observe, wait, and listen” to what your child is interested in and wants to play with. Follow their lead, and join in playing with what your child’s attention has been drawn to.

You will often need to get down on the floor (e.g., sit, crouch, kneel, or even lie down on your tummy facing him/her). It helps if your child can hear you clearly, and see your face/lips when you speak. Use lots of facial expression, and an interesting voice when you talk.

2. Parallel Talk and Self Talk

Once you have followed your child’s lead, and got down on their level. Talk about what your child is playing with, and how they are playing with it. This is called ‘parallel talk’.

It is important not only to comment on things/objects, but to comment on people and actions too!

Sometimes, especially during everyday activities you do with your child (e.g., shopping, cooking, doing the laundry or dishes, gardening, fixing a fence) it is good to talk aloud to yourself! Talk so that your child can hear and understand what you say (e.g., “Mummy’s getting washing. Get the pegs. Peg a shirt. Peg shorts. Daddy’s shorts now”).

3. Use short, simple sentences (just above the level your child uses)

The language you use when playing with your child (i.e., model for them), should be just above the level he/she is currently using. The idea is that this encourages the child to move into the next ‘zone’ of development. For example, if your child uses gestures and babbles, talk to them mainly in single words, or very simple 2-word sentences.

If your child points to a ball and says ‘uh’, you could say ‘Ball. Get ball.’ If your child is using single words, but not yet combining words into a short sentence, model 2-3 word sentences. For example, if your child says “Truck” say: “Oh! A big truck! Drive. Mummy drives the truck.”

4. Recasting and expanding what the child says

Young children often make many ‘mistakes’ in their speech and language. They may make a sound mistake (e.g., ‘goggy’ for ‘doggy’, or ‘dirt’ for ‘shirt’). They may make a word or sentence mistake. (e.g. “Me gots milk” instead of “I’ve got milk”). Such mistakes are often a normal part of development.

If your child makes a mistake, it is better not to say something like “No, that’s wrong. It’s not ‘dirt’ it’s ‘shirt’”. Instead you might try recasting the error back to them, in a positive way. This means modelling the correct word/sentence in natural conversation 2-3 times. For example, if your child says: “Here my dirt” (for ‘Here’s my shirt’)

You could respond with:

“Here is your shirt. Oh yes, it’s your green shirt. Let’s put on your shirt. Here is my shirt too.”

The first sentence should be what the child meant, modelled correctly. It often helps to slightly exaggerate the correct sound / word when you say it.

Expansion can be used as often as possible. This strategy simply means expanding on what your child says. For example, if your child says “juice”, say “More juice? Yummy juice. Drink up juice”.

5. Repetition, repetition, repetition!

With all of these strategies repetition of new words/sounds/sentence structures is the key! Children often need to hear a sound/word/sentence structure used correctly many times before they begin to use it.

6. Power words

Children’s first words are often what we call “power words” – That means, words children are motivated to learn to say because they make something happen for the child. For example:

  • UP - The child says “up” to make his/her parent lift him/her up.

  • PUSH – The child says “push” to make his/her parent push him/her on a swing.

  • MORE – The child says “more” to get another piece of food, more drink, more of a fun game, etc.

  • OPEN – The child says “open” if something is shut and he/she needs help to open it

Other power words include favourite toys and games (e.g., ball, star [for twinkle, twinkle]) food/drink (e.g., milk, drink, bikkie), important people (e.g., mum, dad, nanna). They are often used to request something, or get someone’s attention.

7. Creating opportunities for the child to talk

Sometimes, children are late to begin talking, or say less, because they don’t have to communicate. Parents or brothers/sisters will get what the child wants or needs, without the child having to talk about it. This is a natural thing to happen in families, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. However, sometimes it is good to just “observe, wait, and listen” – giving your child silence and the opportunity to say something. Silence, and taking a break are ok!

Being tricky! Often, Speech Pathologists will be tricky to encourage children to communicate. We do things such as:

  • Putting a toy out of the child’s reach, or shutting a lid on a favourite toy tightly – so the child has to ask for it/help.

  • Doing something silly (e.g., putting a hat on your foot, and a shoe on your head) and pretending it’s normal – so the child has to comment on it.

8. Praise

It is important though to keep language-learning a positive experience – and not let your child get too frustrated. It is a good idea to praise and reward an attempt at talking, if your child is trying but cannot say a word/sound correctly. Say “good talking”, and “good try”. Make a big deal – smile and clap your hands when your child gets something right for the first time.

9. Book sharing

Sharing books with your child is a great way to bond with him/her, as well as develop their language and literacy. Look at books with your child. Talk about the pictures, and what is happening in them. You don’t necessarily have to read the writing. Follow what your child is looking at and comment on those things. Becoming a library member is a great way to get access of lots of books – a new one each few weeks – for a reasonable cost. Books where a line is repeated many times (often with a slight variation) are great! It is ok to tell your child a simple version of the story, or to be creative and add things of your own to it.

10. Singing songs and nursery rhymes

Singing nursery songs to your child is a great way to develop language. Songs that rhyme and have actions are especially good. At first, your child may just watch and listen. But after a while they are sure to join in! Some good songs are:

  • Humpty Dumpty

  • Twinkle, twinkle little star

  • Hey, Diddle diddle

  • If you’re happy and you know it..

  • Miss Polly had a dolly

  • Jack and Jill

  • There were three in the bed

  • Insy-windy spider

  • The wheels on the bus

  • Old MacDonald had a farm

  • Row, row, row the boat

  • Open, shut them

  • Five little ducks

  • It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring

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