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. (Notice, I did not say ‘push’. Parents and adults are guides and helpers for a child, and not a drill sergeant)
If your child is a late talker, some simple strategies will help get you and your child on the right track.
- Be Attentive and ‘Helpful’
- Be Uncertain / Sabotage
- Encourage Vocabulary
Be Attentive and ‘Helpful’
Have you ever been to a foreign country? Let’s imagine that you are in Spain and want to order a bagel. You memorized the words you need to use, but when you try to talk to the worker she looks at you confused and slightly annoyed. She shakes her head and says, “just tell me in English.”
How do you feel after that? You might believe that you are just not very good at this language learning task, and it would be best not to try at all.
Now imagine that instead of looking annoyed, the lady looks at you patiently and with her full attention. However, she is slightly confused which bagel you want so she shows you different options. You point to the one you want, but since there is a glass cover in the way, 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 are still motivated to communicate in Spanish, but you are aware that there are new words you must learn.
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 use a strategy called ‘sabotage’.
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. I did not ignore their initial request, nor did I say ‘no’ or give them a command. They are still ‘with’ me and I typically have their full attention.
Once you have a child who is ‘with’ you and an open to learning, you can encourage new vocabulary! Remember to encourage with a positive attitude free of ‘pushiness’. I like to choose from the following possible responses, depending on the child’s patience and the situation:
- ‘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!”).
- 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 helpful’ and ‘uncertain’ along with encouraging vocabulary through choices, repetition, labeling, suggesting, and pausing.
- 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!”.
- Notice that I did not ask “do you want a cookie?” As soon as you ask this question, you are accepting that the child can ‘nod’ or say ‘yeah’ to get what he wants.
- Notice that I said “cookie” 3 times. Repetition is the key to success.
- Notice that I do not give a command and say “tell me ‘cookie’” and instead I guide the child on what they could say.
- Notice that I did not withhold the cookie. Instead, I give 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.