No matter the cause of a speech delay, everyday interactions with toddlers are critical opportunities for learning. Even children who receive formal intervention will learn best if they have frequent, high quality linguistic interactions with people they love inserted into their daily routines.
We’ve compiled some tips from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Reading Rockets, and our own experience and knowledge for parents of young children who seem to exhibit speech delays.
What you’ll see below are suggestions for ways to encourage very young children to understand and use language and to model language in helpful ways. What you won’t see are suggestions about correcting children. The reason? Children struggling to use language can become frustrated when they are unable to make themselves understood, especially when it seems so easy for everyone else. Correcting a young child can cause negative associations with speech and language use. Modeling, on the other hand, provides a positive example instead of a rebuke.
Even if you don’t understand what your child is saying, acknowledge the attempt to communicate. Smile and make eye contact with your child. This will encourage him to keep trying. If you need clarification, commend the child for trying and then ask for a gesture by saying, “I’m so glad you’re using your words! Can you help more? Show me what you want.”
If you can understand, repeat what your child says so that she’ll know you understood her. Even better, show your child how she can add more words to her sentence by expanding it for her. If your child points and says, “juice,” say, “Would you like some juice? I hear Lucy saying, ‘I want some juice, please!’”
All people learn new words best when they’re presented repeatedly in context. To help your child learn a word, use it frequently in sentences. For example, if it is clear that your child doesn’t know the word toast at breakfast, say, “Here is a piece of toast for you. I’ll have some toast, too! I put some butter on your toast. I’ll have some butter on my toast, too. My toast is still warm. Is your toast warm? Toast is great with eggs!”
Repeating a child’s utterance will help her to feel validated, and it may even help prevent tantrums! Some children melt down when they’re told “no” because they’re frustrated that their desire hasn’t been understood. If your child wriggles and exclaims “Up!” on an airplane, say, “I know. You want to get up. I understand. I’m sorry, but we can’t get up. We have to sit. The rules are we have to sit for now. It will keep us safe. We can get up soon. For now, let’s look at this book.”
Avoid speaking in the third person (e.g. saying “Mommy is here!” if you are Mommy). Pronouns like I and me are difficult for young children to grasp, and they need to hear as many examples of correct use as possible. Speak to your child as you would to an adult, albeit with clearer, short sentences.
To help children understand pronouns, incorporate them into play. Using two dolls or figurines, act out interactions. This is especially helpful when talking about possessions; very young children have a tough time with mine versus yours. For example, you might show one dinosaur “saying,” while nudging a crayon to a Lego man, “This blue crayon is yours.” The Lego man can then ask, “Really? It is mine? It is for me? It’s mine?” The dinosaur can reply, “Yes, it is yours,” and the Lego man can reply, “Hooray, it’s mine! Thank you!” Invite children to participate in the dialogue if they are able.
Demonstrate the right word if your child uses the wrong one. If your child points to a piece of ribbon and says, “Rope,” say, “Look at the ribbon! It looks like the ribbon your sister wears in her hair. That ribbon is red, just like your sister’s ribbon. Sometimes people use ribbons on birthday presents.”
As much as possible, avoid questions that can be answered with yes and no to give your child the opportunity to practice using other words. Provide multiple choices so that your child has language to imitate; this gives him the chance to use words without having to generate them himself. Ask, “Do you want to wear the red shirt, or the blue shirt?” or “What do you see the other kids doing? Are they swinging or running or sliding?”
Pairing words with actions will help children to remember them. This works best with verbs; demonstrate the actions when you say, “clap your hands,” “jump,” or “nod your head.” Encourage kids to do the same.
Songs’ rhythms, rhymes, and melodies make them excellent for cementing language in memory. Children’s songs, like the ones sung by the legendary Raffi, are great for building language. Worried you’ll lose your mind? Play albums by The Beatles, Cat Stevens or any other band that writes catchy, short songs sung with clear diction.
Reading is a wonderful way to introduce language to kids. (Talking to your child is no substitute for reading, by the way; studies show that books expose children to a wider variety of words than those used in everyday speech, and the pictures help them make meaning from the new vocabulary.) After you’ve read a book a few times to your child, ask them to tell you what is happening on a particular page, using the picture as a scaffold. Follow the tips above to show your child that you understand them and model some expanded sentences. As your child’s language develops, ask her to retell story as you turn the pages, using the pictures to help her structure her narrative.