Children begin learning language skills from the moment they are born and continue learning throughout their lives. Speech and language development is an important part of development in young children, and there are ways that parents can help encourage these skills at home.
When thinking about ways to encourage speech and language development at home, it is important to remember that words are not the only way children learn to communicate. Non-verbal communication plays a huge role in the early development of children. Infants begin to communicate with us by crying. Babies pick up on how parents respond to them when they are crying, and will learn to get their needs met through this form of communication. From this point on, they begin to learn how to intentionally communicate their needs by making additional vocalizations and even using their own body language. Parents are the best reinforcers for their children, and they should reinforce children’s early attempts at communicating by encouraging children to communicate by pointing to things, making eye contact, and using body language.
Encouraging Language Development From Birth to Age 2
Some language activities parents can do from birth- 2 include:
- Talk to your baby conversationally
- Respond back to them when they make sounds
- Teach your baby to imitate movements of the face or hands like clapping
- Talk to your baby often and name things like colors, animals, shapes
- Read to your baby often, drawing attention to pictures
Activities to Encourage Early Speech and Language Development
Once children start to make more vocalizations and say a few words, parents can continue to encourage language development by creating opportunities. Parents often know what their children want or need without the child ever having to directly ask for it. For example, it may be snack time and typically the parent will bring the child a snack without them having to ask for it, instead of just handing them the snack, parents could leave the preferred snack out on the counter where the child can see it, but not reach it, this will create an opportunity for the child to have to ask for it and use communication. The child can do this either by requesting what they want, or if they are unable to say the word for what they want, they can point to it. This creates intentional communication between the child and the parent.
Creating opportunities for intentional communication encourages speech and language development by helping the child to learn that they can get what they want by verbalizing what they want to others.
Other ways parents can create more opportunities for intentional communication can be very natural. For example, you might leave toys and books just out of reach of the child so that they will begin to vocalize what they want, even if it is just by combining sounds and intentional body language. When interacting and playing, leave out pieces of the puzzle or game that they will need to keep playing so that the child is encouraged to ask for them. A silly way to encourage language is during typical routine times such as bathing or dressing. Parents can place the child in the bathtub with no water and act like they are going to give them a bath. Then the parent may ask ‘What are we missing?’ to encourage the child to say water or point to the water. If the child points and does not say the word the parent should be sure to model the correct word for the child.
If children have developed more language skills, parents can use pausing during book reading or singing songs. To use pausing, the parent will read or sing part of the song and then pause at a familiar part of the song or story to encourage the child to fill in the blank with the rest of the song or word for the story.
Encouraging Language Development From Age 2 to 4
When a child is between 2-4 parents can:
- Name things in their environment
- Ask your child questions that include choices
- Ask yes/no questions, and repeat what they say
- Add words conversationally to encourage longer sentences
Encouraging Language Development From Age 4 to 6
Between the ages of 4-6 parents can:
- Use new words around children to increase vocabulary
- Have children follow 2 and 3 step directions
- Ask children to categorize items
- Talk about things that the child or parents are seeing throughout the environment
Strategies to Use for Early Language Development at Home
There are additional strategies that can encourage speech and language development in toddlers and young children. These include:
- Imitating: Imitate what the child is doing or saying. Parents can imitate banging with spoons, feeding a doll, or using words that the child is using. This allows the child to know that what they are doing and saying is being noticed and encourages them to imitate parents and learn more complex language.
- Expanding and recasting: When a child says a word or short phrase the parent can repeat what the child says and also add on additional words to increase phrase length and vocabulary. For example, if the child said “red dog” the parent could repeat ‘yes, the dog is red’.
- Commenting and describing: When children are playing with toys, oftentimes parents want to give directions on how to play with the toys. Instead of telling children how to play, parents can follow the child’s lead and describe what the child is already doing. For example, the parent could say ‘you are feeding the doll her bottle’.
- Labeling: Parents can label all the different things that they are seeing or touching. For example, when the parent gives the child food at snack time, the parent can name the different utensils being used, and the types of foods that they are eating.
- Turn taking: Engage in back and forth eye contact and allow the child to have a turn to talk even if they are only using vocalizations.
- Modeling: Model what you want the child to say. For example, if the child is trying to open a box and needs help, the parent can say ‘open box’. Do not expect the child to imitate right away, but instead keep modeling for the child repeatedly.
Speech and Language Development in Toddlers and Children and When to Seek Intervention
While children certainly develop at their own pace, there are certain milestones with speech and language development that are important signs of meeting adequate benchmarks of healthy, normal development. While the strategies and activities described above will help parents keep their children on track, there are times when children may experience difficulties with speech and language development, where outside intervention may be needed. For example, a baby who doesn’t respond to sound or vocalizations should be checked by a doctor right away. But often, it’s hard for parents to know if their child is taking a bit longer to reach a speech or language milestone, or if there’s a problem.
If you suspect there may be an underlying diagnosis, or a delay that requires professional assessment, the speech and language therapists at Niagara Therapy, LLC are skilled in common warning signs that there may be a problem with speech and language development in your child and can offer a treatment plan to get them back on track.