15 Ways to Encourage Expressive Speech and Language Skills with Your Child

CME WebsitesChild Development, Parent Routines

In Early Intervention we see many children with delays in speech & language skills. The American Academy of Family Physicians states that 3-10% of all children present with a speech delay. Speech delays are more common in boys than in girls. Delays can result from a specific diagnosis such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, or hearing loss. Sometimes delays are just a result of maturation with no known cause & these children are simply considered “late talkers”.

Parents typically want to know how they can easily stimulate communication skills at home, other than constantly asking their child “What’s this?”. The best way to stimulate your child’s speech and language is during daily routines, so it is natural and in context. Often we hear parents telling a child “Say ball” when they are not playing ball or a ball is not even within sight, or telling a child “Wave bye bye” when it is not time to leave. Many children do much better when they are not put on the spot to produce language and parents let language learning occur naturally during daily activities.

Below are fifteen simple things that parents can build into their child’s daily routines of dressing, eating, playing, bedtime and bath time that will help build their child’s communication skills. If you have concerns about your child’s speech & language do not hesitate to request an Early Intervention evaluation through your local provider.

  1. Modeling – First and foremost, be a good speech model for your child. Children need to hear speech in order to imitate speech. During play & daily routines always talk to your child about what you are doing. For example, “You are putting your arms into your shirt” or “Mommy is cooking your breakfast”. If your child makes an attempt at a word, remember most young children cannot pronounce many words correctly and that is ok (You can read more on articulation here). If your child says “ba” for “ball” consistently, this is his word for “ball”. Be sure you always pronounce it correctly with the “l” sound on the end, so he hears it correctly. Many parents revert to “baby talk” by imitating their child’s speech calling a bottle “baba” or a blanket “banky” which does not help a child hear/learn the correct pronunciation of words.
  2. Expansion – When your child labels or says a single word, always expand on that word so your child hears it in a sentence. For example, if your child says “baby”, you can say “The baby is sleeping.” or if your child says “more” you can state “You want more juice”.
  3. Imitation – Young children love to imitate. Start by imitating something that your child already does, especially something fun or silly like making faces or unusual sounds. Move to imitation of new gestures by singing songs like “Wheels on the Bus” or imitation of environmental or animal sounds such as “wheee, zoom, beep-beep, ding-dong, uh-oh, moo, woof, meow”.
  4. Choices – Always give choices during meal & play time when possible to encourage your child to use a gesture/vocalization to communicate his wants/needs. For example if your child points toward the kitchen when he is hungry, give him a choice by holding up his cup and then showing him the milk & juice and asking “Are you thirsty? Do you want milk or juice?”.
  5. Prompting – You can prompt by using sounds, gestures or choices. For example, if you want your child to tell you “more” you can first show him the sign for “more” as a prompt. You can also prompt by saying an initial sound of a word to give your child a boost, for example if you have heard your child previously say “milk” you can say “Mmmmm” as a prompt.
  6. Parallel Talk – When you are playing with your child or your child is eating, bathing, etc. talk to him about what he is doing. For example, “You are building a big tower. You stacked 5 blocks! Uh oh, one fell down.” or “You are eating your fruit. Those bananas are yummy. Chew, chew, chew. Bananas are slippery”.
  7. Waiting/withholding – This is best to do when you know your child already has a word/sign and is not using it. First always give your child time to respond before giving him the desired object/food. He may just need extra time to respond. Or, withhold the child’s desired object/food until he uses the word/sign for it.
  8. Sign Language – Supplement speech by using signs paired with words. Signs can help alleviate a child’s frustration and give him a way to get his wants/needs met. You can read more about the use of signs/gestural communication at this link.
  9. Picture Communication – You can use pictures of objects & activities so your child can point to objects he wants. For example make your child a communication book of daily routines by using digital pictures placed into a small photo album or cut out pictures of foods from a magazine, cover with contact paper and place magnetic tape on the back so he can make choices by handing the picture to you.
  10. Questioning – Ask open ended questions instead of always yes/no questions. Open ended questions are used to start a conversation with your child. For example “Where is Daddy?” or “What do you want for lunch?” or “Who is coming home soon?” etc. If your child doesn’t answer you can answer for him “Daddy is at work” or “Grandma is coming home soon!”.
  11. Novelty – Bring something new or unexpected into a child’s play or daily routine to illicit conversation. For example, while playing with farm animals make the cow say “woof woof” and see if your child notices and comments on it. When it is time to brush teeth hand him a comb and see what he says. If your child doesn’t comment, you can point it out and say “We don’t use a comb to brush our teeth, we use a toothbrush”.
  12. Forgetting – Forget things on purpose and see if your child remembers or comments. For example, if your child wants milk, place his cup on the table and the milk within reach, but don’t pour the milk. Or when singing a song sing “Twinkle, twinkle little ___” and forget to say “star” and see if your child makes an attempt to fill in the forgotten word.
  13. Self-Talk – This is something parents should do all the time. Talk about everything and anything you are doing “Mommy is doing the laundry. I am folding your red shirt.” or “I am chopping carrots. We are going to have a salad with carrots & lettuce & cucumbers”.
  14. Paraphrase – Use simple language with toddlers instead of lengthy explanations or directions. Instead of saying “You need to put on your coat because it’s cold outside and we’re going to Grandma’s house” simply say “Put on your coat”. Using simpler language when asking children to complete a task or follow a direction works best.
  15. Place things out of the child’s reach – Instead of always having your child’s sippy cup on the coffee table, put it within your child’s sight, but out of his reach so he needs to gesture or verbalize that he wants it. You can do the same with favorite toys.