The process of learning to talk and communicate is way more complicated than you may think. Here are just a few things we have to learn before we can communicate effectively:
- The speech sounds that make up individual words (b, n, d, s, f, r, l)
- Names of people, places, and things (i.e. apple, home, juice, Mama, Papa, car)
- Action words/verbs to interact with people and things (i.e. tell Mom to “go” while sitting in traffic, say “stop” when a friend hits them)
- Adjectives to describe items (i.e. “red car,” “orange juice”)
- Put two or more words together to make a phrase or sentence
- How to ask and answer questions (i.e. “Where is Daddy?,” “yes, more cookies”)
And that’s just the beginning! It’s honestly a miracle we can communicate at all when you think about it. Side note: the more I learn about the human body, the more I’m amazed. I don’t know how any of us are walking around and functioning at all when you know how many things have to work just right for us to just breathe and function. (Genesis 1:27)
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. The list above (and the suggestions below) may feel overwhelming. Let me show you a little grace before we get into my suggestions. You are only human. You will not be able to do everything on this list to perfection. That is okay. Cut yourself some slack. You know when you are doing your best and when you only have so much to give. Yes, communication and language development is important. Your sanity is also important. That baby won’t learn anything if you have a nervous breakdown. SO…do your best to help develop these important skills, but don’t condemn yourself if you forget or don’t have time. There are some sweet, precious Mamas and Daddies out there who put way too much pressure on themselves (you know who you are). If you want more information on what you’re child should be doing, check out this post.
The tips listed below are the things I hear myself saying most often to my families. Find a few suggestions that will be easiest for you to implement and get started. Once you develop habits with those, pick a few more to work on.
15 Tips to Develop Your Child’s Language
1) Talk to your child.
This seems obvious, but it may be harder than you think. This will look different at different ages, of course, but it’s just as important at 2 months as it is at 2 years! Talking to your child teaches him social interaction. When you respond to the sounds he vocalizes, he learns the back and forth of conversation. It’s also the best way for children to learn the sounds we use for speech, and eventually new words.
2) Talk around your child.
Talking to other adults or children when your child is nearby is also important. Kids learn through imitation and experience. If they watch you having a back and forth conversation with your Mom or spouse, they’re going to learn that conversation takes two people. When they see you laugh together, they’ll learn that talking is a good thing. When they hear you say the word “sit” and you or your conversation partner sits, their brains create an experience with the word “sit.”
3) Name items in the environment (and pictures).
Like I said earlier, kids learn through imitation and experience. They’re not going to learn what a book is if they never hear you call it a book. If you didn’t realize this was important, you’re not alone. Many families I work with aren’t naming items in their environment or pictures in a book. Think about it this way:
You’re learning Spanish from scratch. You have little to no exposure to the language. Let’s say you sit down with two Spanish speaking adults to have a conversation. They are talking back and forth and you have not a clue what they’re talking about. Then one friend says, “galleta?” while offering you a plate of cookies. You would probably understand that she is offering you a cookie, and the Spanish word for cookie is “galleta.” If she hadn’t named that item while holding it out to you, you wouldn’t know what “galleta” means. [Disclaimer: I got “galleta” from an online Spanish dictionary, so forgive me if the translation is off.]
4) Talk about the function (or use) of objects.
Kids need to learn what objects do to actually learn and understand that word or concept. Knowing the name “cookie” isn’t all we need to understand what a cookie is. We eat cookies, bake cookies, buy cookies. Some cookies taste good and some taste bad. There’s a lot more to a cookie than its name. Just like there’s more to you than your name. When you’re cooking dinner, talk about how the food is hot or cold and how you’re stirring or pouring. When driving, talk about concepts like “go and stop” or “fast and slow.” I often tell my families that you’re doing it right when you feel like you’re talking way too much and are maybe tired of the sound of your own voice.
5) Make a big deal when they do something well.
We all love a pat on the back when we do something great. Our kids are no different. Children tend to repeat those activities or actions that produce a reaction. (Of course, this is often those actions we don’t want them to repeat like jumping on the couch after we made them get down or making a silly sound that made us laugh the first time and not so much the 478th time). If we make an excited sound, smile, and laugh when a 13 month old babbles with speech sounds (“bababa”), he’ll want to do it again to get the same reaction. If we clap and smile and act a fool when a 2-year-old asks for “milk” instead of just bringing us their cup, they will want to repeat that action.
Parents of kids with autism or intellectual disabilities: this is especially important. Praise may look different for your kid (or for the kid who could care less if you’re proud of him). If they ask for “milk,” maybe you give them the special treat of chocolate milk instead of white milk to reward appropriate communication. If they say “go” and seem to want to go outside, you take that baby outside no matter the weather or the fact that you don’t have time for that (within reason, of course).
6) Require him to ask for the things he wants (using words, gestures, AAC device, pictures, etc.).
Speaking of asking for “milk” or to go outside, it’s so incredibly important that you make your child ask for things they want. This may be the suggestion I give most often. We all tend to anticipate what children need because it’s easier for us and less stressful for the kiddo. Totally understandable—no condemnation here. However, you need to understand how anticipating needs without requiring communication affects a child’s communication development. Here’s what I mean by anticipating needs:
- Your child always wants more juice when his cup is empty, so you go ahead and fill it up when you see the empty cup on the floor.
- Ketchup with chicken nuggets is a requirement for your kiddo, so you put some on the plate before serving him dinner.
- Blocks are the most bestest toy your kid could ever play with, so you put the box on the bottom shelf so he can get to it easily.
Are these things bad? Absolutely not. But for a kid with a communication disorder, these are missed opportunities to not only teach language, but to emphasize the importance and power of communication. You obviously can’t require your kid to ask for every little thing all day long. You both would go crazy. I suggest choosing a few things you child loves (like, will melt down if they don’t have it) and make him ask for those things.
Any speech therapist will tell you that food is the best therapy tool out there, but this wouldn’t be appropriate if your child isn’t very interested in food. Maybe he has a favorite toy or video on YouTube. Make him ask for it using words, any kind of vocalization, his communication device, or gestures (i.e. sign “more,” point to the item). Pro Tip: only prompt a child to ask for something if you have the time and energy to see it through. They will throw a fit, cry, and act like you’re cutting off their foot, but you must see it through. If you give in half way through the tantrum, they learn that crying and fussing gets them what they want instead of the words we so desperately want them to speak.
7) Imitate their movements and sounds.
I may sound like a broken record, but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have the skill of imitation. A child must have the skill of imitation to learn sounds, words, or really anything else. I learn best by doing, and I would venture to say you do too. Our kids are no different. If your child is not imitating at all, imitate them! If they make a sound, you make that sound. If they wave an arm or touch their head, you do it too. You’ll eventually see this look on their face that says “wait, that’s what I just did.” Hopefully, a back and forth imitating game with start. They make a sound, you make the same sound, they make the sound, etc. Guess what? They’re now imitating!
8) Make sure your child spends time around other kids.
Being around other kids in both structured and unstructured environments helps your child learn what he’s supposed to do and how to act. It may not be a good thing when little Johnny learns to pinch after he sees Sally do it at school, but learning from a peer model is for communication development. In a structured environment like preschool, kids learn to follow directions by watching what other children are doing. They also learn what words to use to ask for more juice at lunch or for that favorite book the teacher reads.
In unstructured environments like the park or a friend’s backyard, your child learns important play skills that they wouldn’t be exposed to at home by themselves or with a sibling. The way kids talk to each other is different than the way adults talk to kids. Children with communication disorders need to observe this to learn it.
9) Expose your child to different people and environments.
Speaking of preschool, the park, and a friend’s backyard…get your child out of the house! I have met many a family who says, “oh, we’re homebodies and don’t get out much.” I like to be at home as much as the next person, so I get it. For children with communication disorders, staying at home all the time can hinder language development. Like I said in the last point, they need to learn from other children (and adults). If you and your spouse are the only people your child is around on a regular basis, they’re learning is going to reflect that.
Research shows we need to be exposed to new information or practice a skill multiple times before we learn it. Think about how many things a child has to learn to be able to communicate. If a kiddo is only getting out of the house once a week, they’re exposure to many communication and social skills is limited.
10) Allow them make choices between items or activities.
Letting your child make choices is great both for communication and behavior. Start by allowing your child to make choices between snacks, toys, or favorite activities. He will learn both the act of making choices (something we all have to do daily) and the benefit of interacting with others.
Choices between non-preferred tasks are helpful with behavior management. Let’s say you need your child to get dressed, which is always a battle. Your child can choose whether to put on his shoes or his shirt. This accomplishes what you need done, but gives him a sense of control. This may seem like a sell out because children should obey their parents–period. However, you are still in control because you are the one giving choices and you will only accept one of the choices you’ve provided. Also keep in mind that children may not understand punishment if they are young or if they have an intellectual disability or language disorder.
11) Play with real toys.
Technology is great. We all love technology. However, playing with real, physical toys is an important part of language development. It’s a tangible way to teach new vocabulary as well as skills like turn taking, following directions, and imaginative play. For example, you could take turns adding Legos to a tower or pushing cars down a ramp. When playing with cars, you can work on action words like “go” and “stop,” descriptive words like “fast or “big,” and turn taking language like “my turn.” Pro tip: If your child has a language disorder or is non-verbal, you especially want to work on core vocabulary words like the ones given in the examples above. These words give a child more bang for his buck. You also want to choose toys that are highly motivating and consumable (meaning they will need to keep asking for “more” or “help”). This may include cars, bubbles, wind-up toys, noise making toys (that you control), a popper like this one, puzzles (give one piece at a time), or imaginative play toys (barn, dollhouse, play kitchen and/or food).
12) Read to your child (even if he doesn’t pay much attention).
We’ve been forever hearing that reading to your kids is important. So much so that we wonder if there’s a big conspiracy theory to sell books. I’ll set the record straight—reading to and with your kids really is that important. It’s obviously an important skill, as navigating our environment and learning new information eventually requires one to be able to read. It’s also important for language development. Books provide opportunities to expose our kids to language that may not otherwise come up. I mean, how else could we talk about different foods and the life cycle of a caterpillar if not for The Very Hungry Caterpillar? We wouldn’t know anything about a zoo at night if it weren’t for Good Night Gorilla. The beauty of books like these are the many pictures you can name to teach your child that vocabulary. Seeing a child point to pictures in a book to have us name them is a beautiful thing.
13) Sing songs together.
Some kids (and adults) learn better when information is put to music. Raise your hand if you learned days of the week to The Addam’s Family theme song! Songs can teach new words (i.e. animals in Old McDonald, counting in 5 Little Monkeys) or how fun language can be (i.e. playing with sounds in Apples & Bananas).
14) Have intentional “instruction” times.
Kids learn well through exposure and experiences (that’s why it was the focus of my list). However, it’s also helpful to set aside intentional time for teaching. If you know your child doesn’t use many action words, use things like cars, animals, music, and food to work on verbs. You can make the cars or music “go” and “stop,” animals “jump” or “run,” or “eat” food. Choosing a particular concept or type of vocabulary to address can help you structure this time so you’re not faced with the “what the heck should I work on” conundrum.
15) Be silly!
I saved the best for last. BE SILLY! Have fun! If you and your child aren’t having fun, anything I’ve suggested above will feel like work and won’t be of much help in the end. So, remember that helping your child communication is incredibly important, but have fun while you’re doing it!
**Disclaimer: I may receive a small finder’s fee if you purchase something from Amazon by clicking on one of the links above. If you want to purchase one of the toys above (or anything else from Amazon), using my links would be so helpful!