9 tips for language and communication development

9 tips for language and communication development

—By Little + Free's Team, feat. Jenna Mercer, M.Ed, CCC-SLP

It can be easy to compare your toddler’s language development to another child’s. We’ve all been there. You hear someone else’s child speaking clearly at the park and wonder, “Is my child behind?”. 

While it is always beneficial to ask your pediatrician or seek out a Speech and Language Assessment, it is often the case that children develop at different paces. It is important to remember that there is a wide variety of “typical” language development. Before comparing your child or searching google for answers, here are my top recommendations for facilitating language development for all children. This is especially beneficial for children ages 1-3 years, but these tips can help any child feel better heard and understood as they continue to find their voice in this world.

Get at eye-level 

Getting on eye-level with your child can make a huge difference in how much information they are taking in from what you say. There is so much power in kneeling when you speak to them or sit on the floor as they play. 

Focus on the other aspects of communication

Do you know how we say, “a picture is worth a thousand words?” This same phenomenon also works with communication. Although speaking is often a top priority within speech/language therapy sessions, there are several other aspects of communication that we use when communicating with one another. Specifically for infants or children who are not yet using their words, it is recommended to grab their attention and communicate through other modes. For instance, try getting your child engaged by making funny or dramatic faces, making sounds that go with toys (e.g., animal and car noises), or finding anything that makes a child laugh. Again, a connection is a top priority when encouraging communication. If your child enjoys dancing or music, using small movements and encouraging them to copy it (e.g., Itsy Bitsy Spider or Head Shoulders Knees and Toes) can be a great start to speech and communication! I find Super Simple Songs on Youtube highly engaging yet still simple enough to be beneficial.

Pause expectantly for longer than you think

If you feel your child understands what is being said, but does not yet attempt to say much, try pausing for additional time after asking a question or speaking with them. The idea of “turn-taking” while we talk is something that we learn over time. Even if your child is not yet using words, try asking a question and pause while smiling and looking expectantly at your toddler to indicate that it is their turn to speak. It is important to remember that babbling is an important stage on the way to talking. If your child is turning on their voice and attempting to tell you something, it is encouraged to nod, acknowledge it, or even respond as if they said actual words (i.e., “Oh really??”).

Make it fun and based on their interests

For us to learn, we must be engaged in the task at hand. So, rather than turning to flashcards or worksheets, spend time playing with some of your child’s favorite toys. Nearly all of my speech sessions are play-based, meaning we are using a toy or game that the child is highly interested in most of the time. This may look like pretending to play with characters in a dollhouse or racing cars. Anything can become an opportunity for communication so long as the child is having fun and engaging.

Listen to the messages being communicated

Like adults, children’s primary motivation for communicating is to be heard. Therefore, if your child tends to mispronounce sounds, it is essential to acknowledge what was said before correcting how it was said. An excellent way to show correct pronunciation without correcting the child is restating what they just said. For instance, if your daughter said, “I taw a tat over there!” you can reply with, “Oh wow! You SAW a CAT over there?”. Again, emphasizing and dramatically articulating the words will model correct pronunciation while ensuring the child feels they got their point across. 

Decrease the length of phrases used

Although your baby or toddler may understand more extensive phrases such as “put the cup on the table” or “look over there,” it is best to demonstrate words shorter. For instance, if you are playing with a toy, rather than saying, “That is a horse! Say horse!” a child will be more likely to attempt the word if you look at the object and excitedly say its name one time. If your child is not yet saying any words, it can be fun and beneficial to begin by demonstrating environmental sounds (i.e., yay, Woah, uh oh, moo, nay, oink, boom, beep beep, etc.). Remember to keep things engaging, fun, and simple. Even if you may feel like a robot sometimes, it is okay to say one-word several times. Many therapists say that it may take a hundred times for a child to hear a word before they are ready to say it, so remember that the best thing you can do is demonstrate the word in a natural and fun way.

Language modeling

To piggyback on the previous point, current research is finding that rather than telling a child “say ball,” it is significantly more effective to model (say) the word “ball” several times in a natural context. To continue with this example, if you want a child to start saying the words “ball” and “go,” it would be more helpful to roll a ball back and forth as you say “gooooo” than to point to the ball and tell them “say ball.” Focus on the fun aspects of passing the ball, and the child will be more inclined to pay attention and hear you as you model the word.  

Don’t’ compare

It is important to remember that every child learns and begins to speak at their own rate. There is a wide range of what is considered to be typically-developing communication skills. By all means, if your intuition is telling you to seek further evaluation, I highly suggest asking your pediatrician or seeking out a speech-language pathologist for an assessment. 

Baby talk is bad, but inflection is good

Along with using simple words and phrases so that saying them feels attainable to your child, it is beneficial to use exciting inflection when speaking with your child. If you feel silly, like someone who just came out of a kid’s TV show, you’re doing it right! Don’t be afraid to be goofy, dramatic, or silly when communicating with your child. The more engaging, the better!

Jenna Mercer is a neurodivergent Speech-Language Pathologist based in Atlanta, GA. She specializes in:

  • Strengths-Based Communication Therapy
  • Helping kids feel understood
  • Coaching parents

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