How to boost your toddler’s language skills using these 11 awesome techniques and get your child talking sooner!
Strangely enough, both of my children have a speech delay, so I’m pretty well-versed now on early language intervention. Little T started speech therapy at around 2 years old and Baby Bun has just recently started at 20 months old.
First off, I KNOW how frustrating this can be for both you and your child so believe me when I say you’re not alone there. My little man didn’t really start putting decent sentences together until he was three and by then we had had our fair share of public meltdowns and temper tantrums. I’m just now entering this stage with my daughter and it is tough.
It’s easy to place the blame on yourself. When I was pregnant with my second I felt for sure things would go a lot more smoothly in the speech department. I was really looking forward to all the adorable little baby words my daughter would coo to me before the age of two. (Something we didn’t really get from my son.) I couldn’t wait to hear her say “mama” and “ball” and to listen to her “moooo” along with Old McDonald. To even say “I love you.” But alas, this has yet to be the case.
It’s not your fault if your toddler isn’t speaking yet. All children grow at their own pace and language development is very individualized. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to watch your friend’s tiny 15 month old squeal “CHEESE!” or to see how others struggle to understand your two year old’s garbled speech. (I’m a great toddler-speak translator now.) Even at the age of four I often have to clarify to others what my son is saying, although he has made some really great strides in just this past year alone.
While there isn’t anything you can do to change your child (never wish this, they are perfect the way they are!), you can offer up some ways to encourage language learning. Constantly engaging and speaking with your child using these awesome strategies is a great way to get them talking sooner rather than later.
Skip the baby talk
If you find yourself repeating the made-up words and sounds your child makes (because let’s face it, it’s just so cute!), then you need to stop. For example, if your daughter points out the window and makes a “brrrrr” sound for car, then you can say “Yes! That is a car.” Giving objects clear, proper names helps a child to see that they are more than just a sound you make. If they have a consistent word they say, like “ba” for ball, be sure to call it a ball, and not the “baby-talk” word they are using.
Expand on what they say or point out
Along those same lines as clarifying the word “ball”, you can also describe more of what your toddler says or points out to you. “That is a blue, round ball.” “The ball is bouncy! It can bounce so high!”
The more you expand on and explain to your little one, the more they interact with you and discover how inflections in your voice make a difference. Such as making an exclamation, asking a question or describing a fun activity.
Ask less questions
You probably don’t realize how many questions you ask your child a day.
“Do you want fruit or crackers for your snack?”
“Are you feeling sleepy?”
“Do you need more water in your cup?”
“What should we play with now?”
When you ask a question your voice carries a natural fluctuation and implies you’re looking for an answer. This is a good skill that your child will eventually begin to mimic but if they aren’t able to express anything back in words, then it’s actually really frustrating to them. Instead, just try narrating along as you play and go about your daily activities.
Say your using building blocks. Instead of asking “Do you want to build a big tower?”, you can say “Let’s make this tower really tall!” and “Look at how well you stack those blocks!”
You can also just narrate your day as you go along. “Okay, let’s go get the laundry now” and “I’m getting hungry, let’s have sandwiches for lunch!”
Give them time to respond
Language development has a lot of factors. When you say something to your toddler they need to hear it, process it in their little mind and then formulate a response in some way. This means getting their brains to make their mouths create a certain set of sounds. Speech is actually quite complicated when you look at all the ways you must move your tongue and jaw to make a word.
If you ask your child a question, be sure to wait and give them some time to think about it and answer back. Also do this if you’re just interacting and speaking back and forth. If you answer for your child or immediatly start talking again, this can be discouraging for them. It can also get them used to you speaking for them.
Practice in the mirror
One great technique our therapist recommends is getting your child to practice in the mirror. Be sure to have your face visible too to they can see your mouth and how you look when making a certain sound. Start with simple things like “m” and “b” sounds or “ee” and “ooo” sounds.
Also, when talking with your little one in general, be sure to get on their level so they can see your face. It helps for them to read your expression as well as your tone of voice and also let’s them mimic you better.
Limit screen time
Several studies now have shown that watching television doesn’t actually do anything to increase your child’s speaking skills. In fact, too much screen time may actually have the opposite effect. I’m not saying you need to nix the TV, but if your child is speech delayed it’s better to focus on interacting with them. You’ll be offering up more speaking opportunities by taking them outside, introducing a new game or working on a craft project.
Read every day
Reading books is one of the best ways to encourage language development. You can start young by reading to your baby (I have a great list of books here) but if you’re already past that stage then start where you are at now. Children’s books are colorful, fun and engaging. I read to my kids at least twice a day and I cannot stress how important this is! Check out this post for a list of my 35 favorite toddler board books!
Try sign language
Some people may say that this can limit your kid’s ability to speak, but that just isn’t true. Especially for toddlers with a speech delay, sign language gives them another means of communicating their needs. Teaching them basic words such as “help” or “milk” will allow them to specify their wants in a way that just gesturing cannot do. Be sure to also say the words as you sign them.
Sing simple, repetitive songs
Music and dance is an excellent way for young children to express themselves. Singing simple songs with repeating verses is great for encouraging speech. Some of our favorites are the Itsy Bitsy Spider, If You’re Happy and You Know It and Old McDonald. Oh, and there’s always Baby Shark! 🙂
Play interactive games
It doesn’t have to be anything specific, such as Simon Says or Red Light Green Light. You can make any form of play into a language learning game by doing a simple task over and over while focusing on one or two word repetition.
As an example, you could roll cars down a ramp and take turns saying “GO!” or “Car!” expressively, every time you let go of the car. Drive the car back up and ramp and yell “Up!” in a playful way. Eventually, by using consistent and predictable play techniques, your child may begin to repeat these words or at least make more frequent attempts to verbalize sounds.
You can also try withholding an object until you get an attempt out of them. When rolling a ball back and forth, say “Okay, here comes the ba-ba…” and then pause and give the child a moment to say “ball!” before you reward them by rolling the ball back toward their waiting hands.
The key in all of these games is to make it fun and exciting so they want to participate and continue to repeat the action or activity. Repetition is key. For some children, they need to consistently hear a sound or word 20-30 times before they grasp how to say it. For many speech-delayed kids it can take hundreds of times.
Validate their attempts
Give them a high-five, shout “Yes!” or “Yay!” or whatever works for you, but be sure to acknowledge your child’s attempt at speaking. It doesn’t matter if the sound they offer up is completely wrong. Any attempt at speech is a reason to celebrate. If they are saying “ooosh” for “moo” then we say, “Yes! Moooo! Great job!” You don’t need to obviously correct their errors all the time. Eventually that “oosh” sound will turn into a “moo.”
Both of my children are part of our state program, Early Intervention Colorado. If you’re concerned about your child’s speech, be sure to talk with your pediatrician and see if you can be referred to a similar program that offers support and services to aid in your child’s development. Typically, this is a free program but your child must qualify through an evaluation done by a group of professionals including occupational and speech therapists and a child psychologist. This is how we receive in-home speech therapy once a week at no charge.
The goal of these programs is to help all children get the head start they need to be on par with their fellow peers before they enter kindergarten. After the age of three they are given the opportunity to enroll in a preschool program and receive their services there instead of at home.
If you have questions about our experience with the program, feel free to send me an email! I’d love to help!
I am not a qualified speech or occupational therapist and this advice is given by me, out of my own research and experience. I always recommend you consult a professional in any field of concern you have with your child.