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Ask the Expert: How to Enhance Your Child's Language Development

I'm a speech-language pathologist (SLP). That's my official title anyway. People often call me "speech therapist" or "speech teacher." I'm not a huge fan of the official or unofficial terms to be honest. First of all, saying speech-language pathologist is such a mouthful that people usually give me a deer-in-headlights look after I've finally finished saying the whole thing. I'd rather be called a "communication specialist." I mean, "Pathologist?" Really??!! Sounds like I'm trying to make the deceased speak. 

Photo from iStockphoto.The reason I'm bringing this up is because parents often ask me about their child's "speech," meaning that they believe that speech solely consists of how sounds and words are pronounced. But speech is a lot more than that. It's not just about articulation. It's about total communication, i.e. language structure, vocabulary, pragmatics, intonation, and more. In fact, by improving your child's overall communication skills, articulation may be improved indirectly since the child is actually verbalizing more often and thus, able to practice different articulation patterns more often. 

So, when parents ask me what kinds of products (or, nowadays, apps) can improve their child's "speech," I tend to shudder. Before I had children, I made tons of flashcards, games, etc. for parents to use at home. Now that I have two wonderful children, the fact that we're all just trying to make it through the day with as few tantrums, melt-downs, and messes as possible has hit me square in the face. I have found that parents tend to want "stuff" in order to prove they are doing something. I fall into this trap all of the time.  “Oh,” I think, “my boy will love to color if I just buy him these really cool crayons.” (Yeah, he could care less.)  There is nothing wrong with trying some games at home, but children tend to be put off by the fact that Mom or Dad is now trying to push them into doing something that is really tough for them. Both parties may get frustrated or the presentation of material could be inauthentic.    

The truth is there is no quick fix, but there are some changes YOU can make in YOUR communication that may make a difference. If you are interested in ways to enhance your child’s language development, I’ve included some of my favorite strategies. These strategies would best be suited for children ages 1 to 4, but they can really be used for children of all ages. Children want to be acknowledged, listened to, and understood.  

My best advice would be to try one of these strategies for a week or two until you feel it becoming more natural to you. I advise writing the strategy you wish to work on someplace very visible, so that you'll remember to use it whenever you get a chance.

Don't be too hard on yourself. If you only try a strategy for five to 10 minutes a day to start with, that's just fine! Get on your child's level so you can be fully tuned-in to your child. Try to get your spouse involved, if possible. I know we lead busy lives and this can be tough. Oftentimes, your spouse will overhear you using the strategy with some success and just naturally start communicating with your child in a similar fashion. When this happens, give yourself and your partner a huge pat on the back!

  1. MODEL at your child's level. Count about how many words your child says per sentence, and your statements should be only a few words longer than that. Example: Your child speaks in one-word phrases, labeling objects like "Ball." You say, "Big ball!" or "Toss ball up!" This lets him know that you’ve acknowledged his statement, and you’ve expanded on what he said. If your child is not using much verbal communication, give him the words to say. For example, if your child vocalizes for juice, "Uh uh," you would then say, "I want juice." You're essentially narrating your child's actions. You may feel like a broken record, but the more you can model for your child, the better. 
  2. GET DOWN on your child’s level. Look your child in the eyes. Use slower, more clearly enunciated speech when speaking to him/her. We tend to forget how much we’re talking at our phones versus looking at our children (that darn iPhone!).
  3. WAIT. This one can be hugely effective.  Say something, or play with your child and just wait for him to communicate. Respond to any gesture or verbalization by modeling. Example: You're playing with blocks, and after a bit, your child says, "uh-oh," you say, "Uh-oh!  Blocks fell down." Then, wait again.  This technique also helps when you're asking questions. We tend to ask and answer our own questions when talking to kids. "Where did you put your shoes? I bet they're in your closet. We should go look in there." Well, we just lost a whole communicative interaction there.
  4. REDUCE QUESTIONS. This is harder than we think. We ask our children LOTS of questions.  See #2.  Many of our questions tend to be Yes/No questions. These offer little opportunity for children to use any speech-language skills. For early language learners, try to ask more choice or embedded questions.  Choice questions would be like, "Which would you like ... blank or blank?" Embedded questions have the answer within the question. Example: "Will we bike to the corner or bike around the block?" The child is given the opportunity to say a longer phrase versus Yes/No. As she progresses, try to use openers, like, "I wonder...,"  "Maybe...," "Hmmm...," or "It sounds like you want..."  Then, WAIT.  
  5. READ and RE-READ to your child. The power of repetitive reads cannot be stressed enough. Children learn language structure and vocabulary by hearing you read the same books over and over again. After you've read a book a number of times, leave a word off or phrase and WAIT. See if your child can fill in the blank. Example: "Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the ____."

Warning: You may feel like you sound a bit strange when trying to implement some of these strategies, but once you get more comfortable, they can become second-nature to you! 

Veronica Kernler lives with her two young sons and husband in Batavia. She holds a Master of Arts in Communication Sciences & Disorders from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She holds the Clinical Certificate of Competence (CCC) from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and is licensed as a speech-language pathologist in the state of Illinois. 

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Reader Comments (2)

I second all these suggestions, especially the read and re-read tip! My kids had speech therapy for several early years, thanks to hearing loss. I was told again and again to read aloud to them. Not only does it model a love of reading, but just hearing the words, the inflection, the cadence, etc. helps the littles ones develop speech.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEdith

Thanks for your advice! I admit that teaching my kids was never easy for me and reading your post makes me ponder on things that my child needs to learn. Please keep on posting!

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

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