1. STOP talking. I know this is probably the most difficult thing to do—but, you will be surprised once you stop talking how much more your toddler will talk. As a speech language pathologist, I have to continuously tell myself to “shut-up” during my sessions. We are conditioned, as communicators, to take up the “silent space” with chatter so we feel more comfortable, but for our young children who are still learning how to process incoming language and might need a little extra time—continuously talking can be overwhelming. This will also give your child an opportunity to initiate communication and then you can let your child take the lead. I love when a kiddie comes to my office and offers a topic that he is interested in which will easily facilitate my language goals, “Guess what Nicole? We just saw a firetruck! And it was loud!” I might want to encourage critical thinking, “Oh my goodness…why do you think it was so loud?” “Why is it so important that a fire truck have loud sirens?” or hypothesizing, “Where do you think the truck was going?” By giving the child an opportunity to comment, a discussion was facilitated with a topic the child loved in which I was able to embed my goals and encourage critical thinking. You can do the same at home—just make sure you give him opportunity to do so!
2. HAVE patience. Did you ever notice when you ask your child a question and he doesn’t respond immediately—you follow up with another question? Maybe you just repeat the first question—or—maybe you switch the wording around a bit. A rule of thumb I typically suggest to my clients is to count (in your head) to five. This will give your child enough time to process the question and answer accordingly. Now, if you are sure your child was paying attention and after waiting 5 seconds, he stares at you with wide, blank eyes—he most likely didn’t understand the inquiry. At that point, you can re-word it so he does. This is also a perfect opportunity to teach the very important skill of asking for help. Many children [when they don’t understand what has been said], just stare. When they do understand, they respond—so this becomes really easy to spot. When your child gets that “deer in the headlights” look, gently explain to him
“Honey, it’s “ok” if you didn’t understand what mommy said and when that happens I would really like you to tell me so I can say it better.” Then offer the language to your child for him to ask for help (this does not always come naturally)—“You can say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need help”.
3. Forced Choices. I learned this little trick early on working with children. We have all been in this situation before, “Sophia, do you want to play with the doll?” “No!” “OK..would you like to color?” “NO!” “What about your favorite Dora book?” “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” [this could go on all day] Next time try this: “Sophia, we have some time before grandma arrives, you can either play with your doll or we can read your favorite Dora book—which one would you like?” The rule of thumb is if you do not want a “no” answer, do not ask a question that can be answered with one.
4. Fill in the BLANK. In educational circles, this is also known as the “cloze technique”. Setting up predictable, language routines will foster pride and a feeling of accomplishment in your child. This can be done during most activities—from basic playing to book-reading and singing. All you have to do is set up a familiar phrase and purposefully leave out the last word, i.e., While singing “the wheels on the bus go round and ____, round and _____.” Then, you can gradually make the task more complicated, i.e., during a favorite book you can exclaim, “Oh, no…look…Dora is crying…she feels ____.” Remember, to cue your child by looking at her and waiting for her response. Once you to this a few times, she will catch on.
5. Sing a song. I see many children in my office, who can sing a favorite song beautifully, but when it comes to actually talking—they have a more difficult time. This is because singing stimulates a different part of the brain and there is a ton of research that suggests it actually makes language (and speech) learning easier. Here is a good article that documents this: http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=601
This website features fantastic music products developed by a speech language pathologist: http://www.expresstrain.org/
6. Don’t read books! Most toddlers love the picture books with their favorite characters and parents then feel obliged to read every word of the book. This is not necessary and many of these books can often be too wordy and confusing for the early learner. Instead, encourage your child to look at the pages and guess what is going on. Set up a familiar structure to help your child express herself—go through the book and point out familiar nouns/verbs using the phrase, “I see___”… “I see a puppy.” “I see a sun” while pointing to the object. Next, take your child’s finger and put it on an object you are sure she is familiar with and use the cloze procedure (step 4) “I see a _____ (CAT!)”. When your child becomes familiar with the routine, she will begin to say the phrase by herself, “I see Elmo!” This will encourage early conversational forms which require a back-and-forth of ideas—it sets up the routine of “my turn-your turn” without putting too much emphasis on it.
7. Out of reach. Put desired objects in out of reach places to encourage your child to request and ask for help. A natural instinct for parents is to make everything easier for their child—but many times we are actually doing a disservice when we anticipate our child’s every need. Once a child realizes the power of language (pointing/grunting/whining do not count) he will talk—and typically, requesting is one of the first forms of communicative intent. This is also a nice way to teach question forms—which can be difficult for children to grasp. Constantly using “I want” or “Give me” can make your child seem demanding (and rude) and doesn’t always bode well when socializing with peers, instead, rework his sentence to include “Can I”…i.e., “Can I have the truck?”, “Can I have a cookie?” (and don’t forget the “please” at the end!)
8. Feign confusion. I don’t recommend doing this all of the time because it can be frustrating for your child—but, it does get your child talking and it is a nice time to introduce early language concepts in a very concrete way. So—the next time you are at the table and your child asks for peanut butter—give him regular butter instead. Wait for him to tell you that this isn’t what he asked for—at that point you can say “But..Didn’t you ask for butter?”—“NO!..PEANUT butter mommy!”—“Oh..I get it now. Peanut butter and butter are the same in a lot of ways—we can spread both of them on bread, they are both soft and they both have the word “butter” in them! But..they are also very different…peanut butter is a darker color—more like a light brown—and it is sweeter.” An early lesson in similarities and differences and your child didn’t even realize it!
9. Bake it out. The act of “doing” always enhances learning and baking with Mom is a fantastic way to teach new vocabulary while having a ton of fun. Think about all of the verbs your child can learn while actually acting them out: mixing, baking, pouring, measuring, blending, waiting. Language learning becomes more salient while doing what you are learning vs. looking at a picture of it.
10. Word of the week. As your child gets older—pick a word of the week and post it on a chalkboard/bulletin board with simple definitions as well as antonyms and synonyms. During the week, exhaust all possibilities using the word—but remember to always use it appropriately. This will help your child to better understand the word in different contexts and will also help him to generalize this word into his vocabulary.