Talking Toddlers

Strategies to Model and Require Language from Young Children

Children learn language from hearing it, and they start this process basically at birth (although some would argue that they begin even BEFORE birth, since studies have shown that babies can hear their parents voices in the womb sometime around 18-20 weeks gestation and newborns can actually recognize their mothers voices!). Even at birth, their little brains are taking in all the sounds of his/her language and storing this information for later use. Infants, toddlers and young children, then, are learning language from the people they spend their time with. This can be grandparents, siblings, teachers and caregivers, but of course the people they spend the most quality time with is their parents. They are constantly listening, analyzing, and storing what they hear until one day they USE IT!


Model the language we want children to use: I remember when my son was a toddler and he would walk up to me and put her arms up while grunting. Yes, he obviously was communicating to me that he wanted up. However, is this how I wanted him to communicate this to me? Not really, I wanted him to say “up” and then eventually “up please” and then at some point “Can you pick me up please?”

But how would my son know to use the word “up” rather than just gesturing and grunting? I had to model it for him. So, for a couple weeks every time he did his arms-up-and-grunt I would look down at him and say “You want up? UP. UP. UP” and then I would pick him up. This went on for a while until one day he attempted to say up! When he said the “uuuu” rather than his grunt I got really excited, repeated “Yes, UP UP UP!” and picked him right up! I prasied and praised him and continued to model until one day he just started saying it all by himself.  PRAISE, PRAISE, PRAISE!! Once your child starts to attempt to say the words you are modeling for him, it is time to PRAISE him for his efforts! Not only do you want to give him the item he is wanting immediately to reinforce this behavior, you also want to praise him like crazy! Use big smiles, wide eyes, high pitched voice and say “Yes! UP! You said up! GREAT JOB!”We want to praise his attempts even if they are not perfect. As you probably know, children do not start talking like adults with all the sounds used correctly. If the child is attempting the word, even if its not perfect, that’s ok! Praise, praise, praise and continue to model the correct production of the words.

Requiring your Child to use Language to Communicate

Some children are very good at getting what they want using nonverbal communication. And many parents are very good at knowing what their child wants. Therefore, the child is getting what he/she wants without having to use language to get it Once you are modeling the language for your child and he is starting to get the idea and using words, you then need to require your child to use the language to get what he wants. For example, let’s say your child has learned to say “up” like in my example above. Start requiring him to use it most times he wants up.  Does your child want his sippy cup of milk? MODEL MODEL MODEL the word milk and once he starts to try using the word (like maybe a mmmmmmm sound) PRAISE him and then start requiring that he uses this approximation of Milk (the mmmm) most times he wants his milk.

 Setting up The Environment for Communication

Language goes beyond using words. The “language” you are requiring could be the use of gestures, signs, pictures, etc…anything that is getting your child to communicate to you. And how do you do this? The best way is to set up the environment for communication by embedding communication temptations into your child’s day.

What is a communication temptation? A communication temptation is an activity or situation that is set up to “tempt” your child to use language. How do you use a communication temptation to get your child to talk? You want to first set up the communication temptation. Then during the activity, you will want to model the language you want the child to use. This is important. You need to model so the child can use your model to learn how to communicate. Your model should be just slightly beyond, or slightly more advanced, than what they are already doing on their own. So, if they are not speaking at all, you may model signs, words, or possibly using a picture to request an item (this all depends on the individual child). If they are using only single words, you will want to try to model two word utterances. Then when they attempt your model, reward them with the item. What are examples of communication temptations? There are so many different ways to set up your child’s day to “tempt” them to use their language. Here are some suggestions of communication temptations you can use to help get your child to communicate (adapted from Wetherby & Prizant, 1989).

During Play:

  • Take a toy that your child enjoys playing with, and remove the batteries. Wait for your child to realize it is not working and model for him/her the language you want him to use. For example, you can model the sign or word “broken” or “help”. When he does so, put the batteries in and give him the toy. Repeat with other toys.
  • Take a toy that your child REALLY loves and start playing with it, not allowing your child to play. When he is starting to indicate he wants a turn, model the language you want him to use, like “Car Please” or the sign for car, or giving you a picture of a car in exchange for the car. Once he attempts requesting for the item, give it to him immediately.
  • Give your child only some parts of an activity or toy, but not all the parts (like only 1/2 of a puzzle, or only 3 train tracks). When the child begins to indicate that he realizes pieces are missing, model the language you want him to use. For example, “Track please” and then hand him another track piece. Then require him to request again to get more tracks.
  • In relation to the example above, during an activity try giving you child an item that does not fit (like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, or a piece of train track that won’t work, for example). Model the language you want him to use “Uh oh! Doesn’t work! Need another!” etc.
  • While playing with your child, randomly take away some of his toys and wait for him to indicate he wants them back, and then model the language you want him to use.
  • Engage your child is a fun social game like tickles, peek a boo, or swinging on the swings. After playing for a short while, pause to give your child an opportunity to request more of the activity. Model the language you want the child to use (for example, rather than allowing “more” I would model the actual verb like “tickle” “swing” or “peek”).
  • Activate a wind-up toy, let it do its thing, and then when it’s done wait for your child to indicate that he would like the toy to be wound up again. Model the language you want him to use.
  • Get out bubbles, blow a bubble, then put the lid back on and hand it to the child. Wait for the child to indicate that he needs/wants help. Model the language you want him to use.

During Mealtimes/Snack times:

  • Grab a food that you KNOW your child loves, and eat it in front of him/her without offering her any. Wait for your child to indicate that they want some, and then model for them how to appropriately request an item. This could be modeling using a sign, gesture, or a word (depending on how your child is communicating at this time). When he attempts to request in a more appropriate manner, give him the food item.
  • During meals or snacks, rather than giving your child all his food at once, only provide him with a couple bites of each item. When he is indicating he wants more, model the way you want him to request. For example, you could model the sign “cracker” while saying “cracker please” and so on. I suggest NOT using the word “more” to request for more, but rather the name of the item.
  • Give the child a food you know your child does NOT LIKE. Model the language you want him to use like “no” or “no thank you”.

In the environment/routines:

  • Take some of your child’s toys (that he REALLY likes), and place them in CLEAR bins in a place that is visible for the child but not accessible. Your child will have to request the items from you. Model the language you want your child to use (i.e. the sign or word for the item like “trains” or “trains please” or “I want trains please”).
  • Don’t allow your child free access to things like food, the computer, TV, iPad, CD player, etc. Put them away (but visible, when possible) so that your child needs to request to use them. Only allow limited use, then put away so they will need to request to use the item again.
  • Change up your routine. For example, “forget” to brush your child’s teeth or “forget” to give your child a bath. Model the language you want the child to use “Uh oh! Forgot bath! Need bath! Brush teeth!” etc. (Other ideas: place the child in a different seat at meal times, drive home a different way from the store, try serving dinner foods for breakfast, etc).
  • Provide obstacles: For example, tell the child you are going to go outside…after you have put a chair in front of the door, or locked the door. Model the language you want your child to use “Uh oh! There is a chair in the way! Chair! Move!” etc.

Ok, so I tried some of these and they didn’t seem to work. My child just walked away! What went wrong? This is important: for these strategies to work, the child needs to actually WANT the thing you are “tempting” him with. So, if you give the child a puzzle, for example, with only a couple parts and he just walks away, the toy simply isn’t motivating enough at that time. Try something else. Some children are more challenging than others to get to use their language. I find food works REALLY WELL. Also, another tip: to make toys more motivating (to make your child WANT that toy) put it away for a while (like at least a week) where the child cannot see it or play with it. Then try again. A child will be way more motivated to get a toy if they do not have free access to it all day, every day. A quick note about the word/sign “more”: I mentioned earlier that I do not typically recommend using the sign or word “more” when teaching your child language. Rather, you should try to teach them the word/sign for the item they are actually wanting more of (like cracker, milk, apple, puzzle, etc). It is very easy for a child to simply use “more” to indicate he wants more of something, but them he is not getting the opportunity then to say/learn the actual name of the object. So, using “more” can actually limit your child’s vocabulary while you are trying to do just the opposite. So whenever possible, model the sign/word for the item and NOT the concept of “more”. Once your child knows and uses the name of the object to request, you can add “more” to his/her utterance: more milk, more crackers, etc.

What other strategies can I use to help my child’s language development?

Language is not learned in a bubble. A young child cannot possibly get enough language stimulation from an hour a week speech therapy session. The child’s parents are the BEST “interventionists” when it comes to language development. I see my role working with young children to help teach and guide the parent to use the best strategies to help their child based on the child’s specific needs. So, what can you, as a parent, do to help your child learn language? I am going to share a few strategies with you that can be used to help your child learn to talk. The following strategies can be used with children who have no spoken words or have many spoken words.

  • Self Talk: This is when you are using short sentences to talk about what you are seeing. hearing or doing when you are with your child. For example, when you are making cookies you may say “Mommy is making cookies! I am putting the chocolate chips in the batter! I am stirring. I am going to put them in the oven” and so on. Have you ever been in the store and seen a person talking and talking to themselves until you realize that they have a baby strapped to their chest? (Or maybe you have been the one blabbering on to your infant in Target and gotten ‘the looks” from people thinking you are crazy  ). That’s self talk! Now, this self talk for some people comes naturally and for others, they need to make an effort to do it.


  • Parallel talk: Parallel talk is similar to self talk, except rather than talking about what you are seeing, hearing or doing you are talking about your child is seeing, hearing or doing. So, when your child is playing with blocks you might say “Wow! You just built a tower! Oh you have the blue block. You threw the red block! Oh let’s see how many blocks there are, one, two, three blocks!” Notice in parallel talk, you are not asking questions of the child but rather are just modeling language.

  Descriptions: These are when you simply describe an object that your child is playing with or looking at. Say you are at the farm…you may label and describe the different animals to your child: “Look at that cow! He is white with black spots!” or “There is a pig. He is big, fat and pink and likes rolling in mud.”   When should I start using these strategies with my child? From BIRTH! Seriously, you should start using these strategies from the time you bring that ball of joy into your life. Your child does not need to have a delay to use these strategies. Like I said, parallel talk and self talk come naturally to many parents and they do these instinctually early on, which helps their child to learn language naturally (usually people who are more verbal to begin with). That said you are not a bad parent if these strategies do not come naturally. Some people are quiet, shy, or are more visual vs. auditory/language and therefore may need to remind themselves to use the strategies.  How often should I use these strategies? This is important…you want to find a balance here. If you are CONSTANTLY talking your kids ear off, it may be too much language and your child may start to just tune you out. I recommend using these strategies on and off throughout your day with your child. Make sure to let your child explore his/her world “on his own” without narration sometimes and  provide opportunities for your child to talk back to you (if he/she is speaking yet). Children learn language by hearing it over and over. A few other strategies you can use to expand your child’s receptive and expressive language skills in children who have at least some spoken words are listed below.

  • Expansions: Expansions are when you take the words your child says about what they see and do and repeat them while adding in missing words/grammar. Another way to look at it, is repeating back the “child-like” sentences back to your child using more “adult” language. By doing this, you are repeating and expanding your child’s language without directly “correcting” him/her. For example, if your child see’s a red block and says “red” you could say “Yes, it’s a red block.” If your child says “Car go!” you would say something like “Yes! The car is going.”  It can be helpful to emphasize the “new” language you are providing by saying those words with a higher inflection/tone in your voice and sometimes can you can even repeat those new words a second time.

The simple act of repeating your child’s utterances not only confirms to your child that you indeed heard him/her, but also this back-and-forth of repeating let’s your child know that what he/she said was “worth repeating” and therefore can encourage your child to say it yet again (either immediately or later). This provides your child with continuing modeling and practice of language concepts.

  • Extensions/Expansions Plus: These are similar to expansions, but one more step up. In extensions, or otherwise known as expansions plus, you not only are repeating and expanding your child’s language, but you will also be adding or extensions new information. For example, if your child says “Car go!” you could say “Yes the car is going. The car is going fast.” If your child says “Red block.” you could.  say “Yes, you have a red block. The red block is shaped like a triangle!” Another example, if your child were to say “yellow doggy” you could say “Yes you see a yellow doggie! The yellow doggie is big and fluffy.”
  •  Repetition: This is for children who are speaking at least in single words, to help provide correct models for articulation. You simply repeat back the word he/she said incorrectly, the correct way. For example if your child says “wabbit” for “rabbit” you would repeat back that word to him, while emphasizing the /r/ sound in the word. Just like self talk and parallel talk, the use of these strategies may come more naturally for some people than for others. And that’s ok!

How often should I use these strategies? Again, you don’t want to use these strategies with EVERY word your child utters. You need to find a nice balance. I personally find myself using these strategies quite often with my own daughter in a very natural way. If you find that using these strategies is breaking the natural give and take of the conversation, you are probably using them too much.

Commenting and Asking Questions

How to use comments and questions to help expand your child’s language:

Make comments about your day: Comments are similar to self talk and parallel talk. However where self and parallel talk are based on what you or your child is seeing, doing, or hearing in real time, comments can be made about things not happening right then or about things that are not in your child’s vision at that time. A great example of comments often used by parents during the day are ones that are explaining what is going to happen now, or what is coming next. For example, “We are going to go to the store after nap” or “It looks like it’s going to rain” or “We are having spaghetti for dinner.” Comments can also just be random information like “I like going to the park.” Comments can help inform the child of what is coming up next or can provide the child with more information on a topic. Using comments along with self talk, parallel talk, and descriptions should be part of your daily communications with your child from birth to help him/her acquire speech and language.

Ask your child questions, but not too many! This is something I see often: parents bombarding their child with questions that the child is unable to answer: “Johnny, what color is this? What is this? Is this a car? What sound does the car make?” etc. Think about it this way: How would you feel if you were in your first day of biology class and the teacher began to ask you question after question about biology? What would you do? You would probably freeze up, feel uncomfortable, and maybe even leave the room. This is how a child can feel when he/she is bombarded with questions all day. These kids can actually shut down and refuse to even try to speak…which is the opposite of what we are trying to do. Before a child can have the ability to answer the questions, he first has to be in a language rich environment where the people around him are using self talk, parallel talk, descriptions and comments so he can learn the vocabulary and language first. Though it is definitely OK to ask your child questions sometimes that they cannot answer- especially of infants and toddlers (while then providing them the answer right after) you want to balance this with questions that he/she can answer without help while continuing to provide your child with good language models through the use of the strategies already mentioned. This is where open ended questions/statements are VERY effective.

Ask open ended questions: Make sure to ask your child open ended questions often. Open ended questions require more than just one or two words to answer and can allow for multiple ways to answer/explain. They can encourage critical thinking skills while requiring your child to use more language to explain himself. Examples of open ended questions include “What do you think about…” “What do you think will happen if…” “How do we make…” Why do we do….” “How do you feel about…” etc. These can include rhetorical-like statements/comments like “I wonder what will happen if…” also.

Ask a variety of different questions (but don’t expect your child to answer them all): You want to ask your child a variety of different kinds of questions (who, what, where, why, when, how, yes/no). Make sure that your questions are not just ones that can be answered using “yes/no” all the time. Using a variety of different question types will help to teach and expand your child’s vocabulary and grammar skills and help them to use language to predict, infer and draw conclusions about their world. As I explained earlier, some of the BEST types of questions to ask little ones are open ended questions like “I wonder” .

Use “I wonder” questions/statements (a type of open ended question): One way to expose your children to different types of questions before he/she has the language/information to actually answer them is to pose the questions in a rhetorical manner. Pose them in a way that you don’t necessarily need an answer, and then you can give them the answer if they do not/cannot answer. You can use the phrase “I wonder…” to pose your question. An example could be you are playing on the floor with your toddler and your child has a red train. Rather than asking questions like “What is that? What color is the train? What sound does a train make?” Try first using parallel talk to talk all about what your child is seeing, doing and hearing (You have a train! Oh the train is red. The train says “choo choo!” Oh the train is on the tracks now!). Then you can pose a question like “I wonder where we should out the train station?” And see what your child does. If he moves the train station you can say “You put the train station next to the tracks!” If he doesn’t move it, you can move it while using self talk and comments to describe what you are doing (and thus “answering” your own question): “I think we should put the station….here! Next to the trees. Yes the station is next to the trees.” Please remember that this information is for educational purposes only. If you feel your child has delays in his/her communication skills, please speak to your pediatrician or locate a speech pathologist in your area for an assessment.

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