Core vocabulary is essential in your child’s language development. They learn words such as ‘mine’, ‘go’, ‘more’, ‘no’, ‘mama’, and ‘gimme’. However, your child quickly learns that with less than 10 words, they can get everything they need! Why should they work to learn more vocabulary?
For kids who are delayed in their speech but who are comfortable in their daily routine, we need to guide them to the next step of verbal communication.
If your child is a late talker, some simple strategies will help get you and your child on the right track.
- Be Attentive but Uncertain
- Encourage Vocabulary
Be Attentive but Uncertain
Have you ever been to a foreign country? Let’s imagine that you are in Spain and want to order a bagel. You say, “I want a bagel please” and the worker, who must understand a little bit of English, quickly gives you your bagel.
How do you feel after that? You might believe that there is no need to learn Spanish if everyone is going to respond to your native language! It is much easier for you this way.
Now imagine that you walk in and say, “I want a bagel.” The worker looks at you confused; she did not understand. You realize you must use your Spanish and point to the bagel while trying to say the correct word in Spanish. She understands that you want a bagel, but she is not sure which one you want. You point to the one you want, but since there is a glass window, she must help you clarify; the cheese bagel or the onion bagel? You repeat the name ‘onion bagel’ in Spanish and then you succeed in purchasing your bagel.
How do you feel after that exchange? You probably realize that learning Spanish may be more important that you previously thought. You are also aware that there are new words you must learn.
Let’s imagine your child walks into the kitchen and says “Mama!”; you know that means, “I want my milk now.” If you give your child a glass of milk then you are acting as the first worker by understanding ‘baby language’. You have communicated that learning to speak English is not necessary.
However, if you respond with a patient and attentive, “Yes? I’m here.” You are giving your child the opportunity to communicate again. Let’s imagine your child now points to the refrigerator. You can say, “It looks like you want something in the refrigerator,” and you can take out two possible items. You can say, “Juice… or… milk?” When your child points to milk, say, “Oh! Milk. Milk!”. Wait for a moment; your child may repeat you. Then you can give your child the milk.
Here is another example:
Child: Gives mom empty cup for ‘more’
Mom: (is busy and holds it without instantly refilling)
Mom: (refills quickly and gives the child the full cup of milk).
The child in this scenario did not have ANY opportunity to use new vocabulary AND they were shown that speaking is not necessary to be understood.
But what if we stopped understanding baby language and started expecting English?
Child: (Gives mom empty cup for ‘more’)
Mom: (Is busy and holds it without instantly refilling)
Mom: (Looks at the child and patiently says), “It looks like you are upset. How can I help?”
Child: (Continues to scream)
Mom: (Shrugs, offers an ‘I don’t know what you want’ expression, and puts down the empty cup)
Child: (Eventually calms down and gives mom the cup again).
Mom: “Oh! Do you want something to drink?”
Mom: “Ok! Come with me. Show me what you want.”
Encourage Vocabulary Through misunderstanding and “Interpreting”
We don’t want to stop children from saying ‘more’, ‘go’, and ‘gimme’, but we want to show that these words are not clearly communicating their message.
I like to ‘misunderstand’ the situation. This opens up opportunities for the child to correct the adult and elaborate. It can also be lots of fun!
If I am holding bubbles in my hand, and the child reaches out their hand and says “gimme”, I look at them happily and say, “ok!” and give them a big hug or a high five. They will be shocked by this initial change, but hopefully they will not become upset. Instead, they may say ‘gimme’ again with more conviction, they may try to use gestural communication, or they may even try to use another word.
NOW they are open to learning. After the child communicates again, I will demonstrate how I had ‘mis-understood’ the child’s message and say, “Oh! You wanted bubbles. Bubbles! You can say, “gimme bubbles!”
Even if the child does not imitate the phrase you offer (they probably won’t at first!) that is ok!
Here is an example for a child who says “more”. The child says “more” even though they are actually looking for something NEW to play with. I will give him more of what he originally wanted. Then, when that is obviously not what he is looking for, I will ‘realize’, “Oh! You want to play with a new toy! You can say, “play!”.
Once you have a child who is motivated to communicate in new ways, you can encourage new vocabulary.
The best way to add vocabulary is to ‘interpret’ and ‘expand’.
Child: (points at the refrigerator and says) “ah!”
Parent: “open!” (Pairs with a gesture for ‘open’ and then looks at the child and waits for 3 seconds)
Child: “oh” (imitates gestures for open)
Parent: “Open!” (Opens the refrigerator)
Child: Grabs milk and gives it to the parent. “More.”
Parent: “More milk!” (Pours in just a little bit more milk)
Child: (holds up the cup) “More”
Parent: “More milk!” (waits 3 seconds before pouring and looks at the child)
Child: “More mi.”
Parent: “That’s right! More milk” (Pours the cup of milk) “More milk goes in the cup.”
To summarize, we can use the following strategies to add more vocabulary:
- ‘Realize’ with excitement what the child is communicating for.
- Label the item (repetition is your friend!) and pause for the child to imitate, if they wish. Then give the item/action. (“Oh! You want the bubbles. Bubbles!”).
- Model adding language to what your child is saying and “interpret”
- If your child says ‘more’ you say ‘more milk’… and pause…
- If your child says ‘more milk’ you say ‘more milk goes in’… and pause…
- Please keep your sentences grammatical. Instead of saying, ‘throw ball’ we want to say ‘throw the ball’. The sentence can be short, but we don’t want to model incorrect English
- Be helpful and offer two choices (“Oh! Do you want the book or bubbles?”)
- Give a suggestion… and pause! (“You can tell me… “Bubbles!”…)
Throughout your day, try following these new strategies of being ‘attentive and uncertain’, ‘misunderstanding’, and ‘interpreting’ along with encouraging vocabulary through choices, repetition, labeling, suggesting, and pausing.
Final sample dialogue:
- Child: “Gimme!” (reaches towards the cookie in my hand)
- Me: “Of course! High five!” (prepares to give high five.)
- Child: “No.” (shakes head and looks confused.)
- Me: “No high five? Hmmm. Oh! (‘realizes’ and looks excited). Cookie! You can say… cookie!” (Wait 3-5 seconds). “Here is a piece; if you want to eat more cookies you can say: “cookie!”.
- * I did not ask “do you want a cookie?” As soon as a ‘yes/no’ question is asked, you are accepting that the child can ‘nod’ or say ‘yeah’ to get what he wants.
- * I said “cookie” 3 times. Repetition is the key to success.
- * I do not give a command and say “tell me ‘cookie’” and instead I guide the child on what they could say.
- * I did not withhold the cookie, even though the child could not say it. Instead, I gave a small piece and encouraged the child to try again.
Remember to keep any communication and language practice positive and fun! If you believe they will say it, then they will believe it too! Maybe they won’t say the new word today, and that is ok. Let them know that you are proud of them and love teaching them new words.