As a parent of a young child, among your many, many responsibilities, teaching your child to communicate is near the top of the list. But how do we do this?
By incorporating simple strategies into your everyday routines, you can help your child learn new words, understand concepts, increase attention and focus, and jumpstart his/her reading and mathematical understanding.
And you can do all of this naturally, while having fun together!
In the presence of young children, adults often wonder, “What am I supposed to say now?”
As children listen to the speech and language around them, they are learning important lessons in how to speak, whether it be pronouncing sounds and words correctly or formulating grammatically appropriate sentences. You can facilitate your child’s skills by verbalizing more often and with greater depth, describing what’s going on around you, and wondering out loud.
Describe what you see:
Try to refrain from asking a never-ending sea of questions, but rather, comment and describe what you see.
“You’re pouring sand into the big, red bucket.” vs. “Are you pouring sand?”
“That’s a big, blue circle!” vs. “Are you drawing a circle?”
“Your ball is so bouncy! My ball is heavy. It can’t bounce. Let’s roll my ball and bounce yours.”
“Baby boy has many more blocks than baby girl. She only has a few. Let’s help baby boy share with baby girl so they both have the same.”
Your child will learn many words and concepts when you describe your shared experiences with specific vocabulary. And for the pre-verbal set, pointing is a critical element of communication. You can model pointing anywhere and everywhere. It’s helpful to pair the pointing gesture with a verbal label.
“Look! A big dog!”
“Fire truck! It’s so loud! Wee-ooh-wee-ooh!”
Giving choices empowers children but allows you to maintain control.
“You can wear your Uggs or your rain boots today. Which pair of boots would you like to wear?”
“Would you like some watermelon or a banana?” vs. “Do you want this or that?”
Using specific words facilitates vocabulary development.
Talk about objects:
Watermelons are so much bigger than bananas! Watermelons are heavy and round. We have to peel this banana before we can eat it.
Give the child the banana. Wait. Look at him expectantly. “Oh, you want me to peel it? You say, ‘peel banana.’ I’m peeling the banana!”
Self-Talk: Taking your inner monologue outside
Let your child hear your process. This will help them to develop logic, reasoning, and advanced language skills.
“I wonder how we will get all these bags of groceries from the store to our apartment. They are too heavy to carry. Let’s look for a taxi.”
“Wow, this is the same kind of sandwich we ate at the beach last week. I remember going to the market with you and picking out lots of yummy vegetables. We bought….”
Make connections from books to your life, notice similarities and differences, compare and contrast whenever you can!
Parallel-Talk: Become a play-by-play announcer
Talk about what your child is doing in the moment:
“You’re pushing the big truck into the tower!”
“You’re mixing red and white paint. Hey, that looks like pink! Red and white together make pink!”
When engaging in parallel-talk, you can interpret your child’s actions:
“You’re pointing to the top shelf. I see Elmo up there! Do you want Elmo? Tell me, ‘Elmo.’ You say, ‘Elmo.’ ‘Elmo.’”
Repetition, repetition, repetition is the way to learn and hold on to new words.
You may associate the word “imitate” with childish play, but imitation is an integral component of teaching and learning. For many children, mutual imitation (i.e., going back and forth imitating each other’s sounds, facial expressions, movements) is the most significant form of sustained social-interaction that they can achieve. When you imitate your child, for example, following his/her lead with a train set, you are demonstrating focused attention on your child. By reflecting his/her actions, you can experience a wow moment of connectedness and fun! The next time your child picks up a toy drum and bangs out musical beats, join in and mimic his/her rhythm. Pause and wait for your child to continue. Creating music together can be magical!
For many parents, letting go of your own control and allowing your child to lead can be a new and difficult concept. But don’t forget — practice makes perfect! You need not be the director of your child at every moment, especially during play. Take a step back and see what your child can show YOU. You may be surprised! Furthermore, by imitating your child, you are highlighting the concept of imitation (i.e., “I’m doing what you’re doing.”) and setting the stage for him/her to reciprocate in imitating you.
Focused stimulation is a term used to describe the purposeful incorporation of goal-oriented practice into natural routines. Focused stimulation is based heavily on repetition. Repetition is helpful for learners of all ages.
For example, if your child is working on his/her use of the verb is, then work to incorporate this into your play – drill it!
“Let’s introduce our Beanie Babies to one another. Here is Pinky. Pinky is a Flamingo. Stinky is a skunk. Here’s Speedy. Speedy —-“
Cue your child to fill in the rest of the sentence. Rehearse this sentence formation many times while having fun!
Don’t be afraid to make it clear that you both are working on the target word by putting emphasis on the word “is.” Focused stimulation is a terrific strategy in helping young language learners to correctly formulate questions.
“Now we’re going to find out what our Beanie Babies like to eat! Find out if Scorch likes bananas.”
Cue your child by modeling — “Do you like…?” questions to all of the animals.
When you begin to engage in focused stimulation, you may find yourself feeling silly when you exaggerate the ssss sound that your child is struggling with or when you repeat the word is in every other sentence you use. But keep at it and remind yourself that you are doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing to improve your child’s speech and language skills.
This is my favorite communication strategy of them all! Parents often lose sight of their playful and imaginative side in the midst of the busyness and complexities of day-to-day life. Kids love it when adults act silly and make mistakes. So how about next time you head out of the house with your child, leave your shoes behind and walk a few steps out the door…
“Oh silly me, I walked out of the house without my shoes!”
Would your child have noticed your error? If she didn’t, try this trick again another day and see if you can prompt her to pay attention to your snafu. By violating expectations and mixing up a solid routine, you’re inviting your child to both notice and comment. At breakfast, give your child a fork with yogurt… Wait. Look expectantly. How will he respond to this scenario?
“I gave you a fork instead of a spoon. Oops! It’s so hard to eat yogurt with a fork because the yogurt will ooze through, silly me!”
Bringing It All Together
In time, these strategies really will become second nature, as they give you a solid framework to connect and communicate with your child. Describing what you are doing, wondering out loud, making associations, describing the how and why… this is how children become active and engaged communicators. For children who need extra support, focused stimulation, repetition, and opportunities to recall and rehearse information are helpful strategies to incorporate into your dialogue.
And remember, when in doubt:
More Comments, Less Questions!