Encouraging Early Language

There are many ways to encourage early language:

  • Provide Running Commentary– Running commentary is talking about all the things your child is seeing, doing and feeling. Be sure to use lots of labels. This sounds like, “oh, you have a ball. You rolled the ball. That ball is rolling fast. I have it; I caught the ball.” At the grocery store, “mommy is putting the red apples in the bag. One, two, three apples are in the bag.”
  • Read and Sing Aloud Everyday– Read board books and picture books with your child. Label and talk about the pictures. Have children’s books available on every level of the house and with you in your diaper bag. Sing songs with your child often, particularly songs with movement.
  • Avoid Anticipating Their Needs – When the child points to their cup, rather than just giving it to them, you might hesitate for a few seconds asking what they need. If gestures and points are able to fully communicate, there may be little need for language. I wouldn’t wait to the point of frustration, but enough to encourage them to use words.
  • Use Echo Expansion – Echo expansion is reflecting their language intact and adding to it. If they say, “milk?” you say, “more milk?” If they say “more milk?” you say, “you would like more milk, please?” You are validating their language effort and modeling using more.

Private Speech

So folks ask, what is private speech?

Private speech is the running commentary we have in our heads that helps to guide our behavior. When you are following a recipe, you may talk yourself through the steps. When a task is particularly challenging, the private speech may become public. We start to talk out loud to ourselves to support the action.

Children start to do this often around three years old. Think about your child working on a hard puzzle – do you hear him muttering to himself about the piece he is looking for or the plan to get started? This is his still public – private speech. As children grow, the speech gradually moves into their brain (hopefully) rather than being said out loud.

Studies show private speech benefits future behaviors. Children who mutter their way through first grade math often benefit second grade math. The idea is the language is reinforcing the learning – they are talking their way back through.

Building Vocabulary

Once they are talking, there are many ways to build a child’s vocabulary.

  • Continue giving running commentary – Talk about all the things they are doing and seeing. Be sure to include functional definitions and adjectives.
  • Continue echo expansion – When they say, “more juice,” model back, “you’d like more apple juice, please?” Keep their language intact and ad on. Model longer phrases and more descriptive language.
  • Plan-Do-Review – If you are going to the pumpkin patch this weekend, before you go get out the pictures from last year and discuss the details or check out a few books from the library about pumpkin patches. This is the “plan” part. While at the pumpkin patch give them running commentary about all that is happening. This is the “do” part. After, talk about what was their favorite thing to do or discuss the day when you get the pictures printed. This is the “review” part. Children are benefitting from having the language before, during and after.
  • Encourage emotion language – Label their and your emotions. Talk about the causes and consequences of emotions. Discuss how people calm and how people cope.
  • Play word games – For the beginner, this includes “I spy” and rhyming games. As they get older, this is 20 questions, telephone and Mystery Garden.
  • Practice following directions – By two years old, we expect two-step directions. By three years old, we expect three-steps. A three-step directions is, “go to the kitchen, get your shoes and bring them to the front door.” If you are unsure, play the Crazy Directions game. This is where you say things like, “find the cat, kiss his nose and jump up and down. Ready, go.” This is more fun and serves the same purpose.
  • Give a vocabulary word a day – There are many websites and calendars to build vocabulary, and the idea is to present and discuss a new word each day with you child. See how often you can each use it.
  • Continue to read aloud – Plan to do this long past the point they are reading to themselves. Yes, it is nice to give them time for that, but plan to do both. Everyday have some time spent reading independently and some time spent reading aloud.

Early Speech Milestones

With so many patterns of normal speech and language development, it can be difficult to sort out what is most important. There are a few basic milestones that if not met, signal flags in early language development.

  • First word – Most people say babies should have a first word by one year old. The normal range for a first word is 10 to 16 months.
  • 50 words by 18 months, concern if less than 10 – Most babies have in the ballpark of 50 words by 18 months old. There is concern if there are less than 10, particularly if those 10 are garbled or only used once or not really in context. I actually wouldn’t be concerned if they only have five words, but those words were clear, well used in context and consistent.
  • Two words together by 24 months – Most babies are putting two words together by 24 months. Many of them are stringing six and seven word sentences, but the concern is single words only.
  • For articulation – Think that children should be 50% understood by strangers at two and a half years old. This means half the time when your child speaks to the lady checking groceries, she understands them. By three years old this jumps to 75%, meaning more often than not she understands. It doesn’t count to be understood by grandma or a great babysitter, they hear his language often. This marker is for strangers.

I am a firm believer in the benefits of early intervention. If you feel or worry your child has a speech or language issue, there is no harm in having an evaluation. Children often enjoy the process, and at best they reassure you and let you know to let go of the concern. At worst, the child qualifies for what were needed services, and you get started on a better long-term path. Somewhere in the middle, they may not qualify for services, but you are given great guidance for working with your child to make improvements at home. Whatever the outcome, early intervention also provides a baseline; a professionals take of where your child is and how to move forward.

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