The mission statement for my private speech and language practice is “to get ALL kids talking to the best of their abilities so they can reach their full potential”. I take this statement to heart with every child I work with and with my own kids at home. That’s because, research shows that young children with strong speech and language skills are more likely to have strong reading skills and to do well in school. Longitudinal research also shows that these kids are more successful as adults.
Modern day parents are involved with their kids’ lives like never before and this is great to see! Now, as a professional in the field of speech and language pathology, it is my responsibility to give parents the proper tools they need to help their children’s language skills become as strong as they can be. Whether or not a child has a speech and language delay, special needs, or they are talking more than any other child, there is always a next step to help them achieve in language development and toward becoming their best selves.
Since engaging kids in conversation is the best way to help develop their language skills, in this post I want to share a basic strategy to get ALL kids talking more no matter what their skill level. Enjoy!
Step 1: Unplug
There are now more opportunities than ever before to disconnect from the moment at hand. TVs, video games, phones, computers, tablets, and so forth seemingly calling for our constant attention. Truthfully, I feel a little uneasy without accessing my phone for even 30 minutes! However, disconnecting from electronics to engage with kids is the first, and most critical step, in getting children to talk. Even if you do nothing else on this list, devoting at least 15-30 minutes per day to uninterrupted time together will be the most important thing you can do for your child’s language development.
Step 2: Make eye contact
I have coached many parents over the years and one of the first things I usually notice is the lack of eye contact. It can be especially challenging to make eye contact with young children during play because it is in a child’s nature to explore, which generally means moving everywhere around the room. In my experience, parents start out sitting with their children to play, but as the child moves around they typically remain sitting in the same spot while continuing to talk to their child, even if they have moved across the room. Research shows that when we are face-to-face with kids it increases the likelihood they will engage in communication with us. If you think about it this makes sense. Would you keep having a conversation with someone who’s not looking directly at you? When you are face-to-face with kids the eye contact and the body posture naturally indicate to them that you are interested and listening, which encourages them to communicate. So if your child moves around during play, you move with them. Even if that means constantly changing places all over the room!
Step 3: Play their way
Playing your child’s way does not mean digging out a toy you know your child likes and offering to do something you know they enjoy. When I say this to parents almost all ask “why not?” The answer is, because even with the best intentions at heart, this is still directing a child in play. The best way to start playing with a child is to have a variety of preferred items in view and available, then WAIT. Literally, do nothing but be down on your child’s level, smiling and encouraging, face-to-face. I guarantee you your child will choose something to do, without you having to say anything! Once they do, take a few seconds to observe how they are playing with the toy and join in by doing the same thing. Continue in this manner as you play together. If they switch toys, move on with them, even if it has only been a few minutes (or seconds!). By playing with the toys they have chosen, the way they like to play, you are sharing in their interests. Research shows that children will talk more when they are engaged in activities that are based on their interests.
Step 4: No testing
Questions are a natural part of conversation, however, often when playing with young children questions can easily start to dominate the conversation on the adult’s side. On the surface questions seem to be a natural way to elicit a response and keep an interaction going, however for young children this can actually be the opposite. When there are more than a few questions asked during play children tend to shut down, either by responding with short answers or not responding at all. I find children shut down the most when they are continuously asked knowledge testing questions in play (e.g. “What colour is that?”, “What does the cow say”, etc.).
To get more language out of an interaction change questions to comments during play. For example, “Should we put the man in the bus?” can be changed to “The man goes in the bus” or “Do you want to play with the baby?” can be changed to “I see a baby”. By offering a comment your child has the opportunity to take the lead in conversation and you have a chance to provide a great language model they may even imitate. For example, in the first scenario they can choose a new spot for the man by saying, “No. Out.” or try and imitate you by saying something like, “Man in bus.” In the next scenario, your child might say, “Let’s feed the baby together” or “I see baby” to let you know they see the doll too! This is far more language than a simple yes or no answer to a question, or even no response at all.
Step 5: Say less to get more
Anyone who has met me knows right away that I am a chatty person! It has taken me a long time to get really good at the skill of saying less while I play with kids and it is something I continually work on. This is a bit counterintuitive, because during conversations with adults long pauses are very socially awkward and we strive to fill them. However, this is opposite for kids. They do not feel socially awkward, and in fact leaving more open air space increases the chance that they will fill it with their own language when they are ready. This is because young kids need more time to think and process before they respond. They are not as quick as adults to look at a toy and come up with an idea of what to do with it, or to formulate language to communicate a message. They simply need more time. So the answer is to WAIT! This does not mean doing nothing. You can still be playing (e.g., driving trains together, feeding the baby, etc.) but you don’t always have to be saying something. The goal is to strive for equal turns. Your child says something, then you, then your child, then you, etc..
It may seem very quiet at first and even a little strange, but if you do this regularly while playing with your child, they will learn that the pause is a cue for them to take a turn in the conversation and they will get more and more confident (and quick!) at filling the air space with their own ideas and thoughts. Once they do, respond immediately with a smile and an encouraging comment back, then keep on playing!
As with many new things, this strategy takes time to learn. Go slowly. Begin with step 1 and work on daily, unplugged play for two weeks. Then try adding step 2. Two weeks later add step 3, and so on. For extra incentive try and audio record your play together. After a few weeks you should see an increase in expressive output from your kiddo.
I would love to hear your stories so email me with any comments or questions. I wish all families out there a fantastically chatty 2016!
1. Bonce, Angelica. (2008). A Research Review: The Importance of Families and the Home Environment. National Literacy Trust.
2. Lowry, Lauren (n.d.). Talking To Young Children Makes A Big Difference. Retrieved online January 12, 2016: http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Talking-to-Young-Children-Makes-a-Big-Difference!.aspx
3. Lowry, Lauren (n.d.). What Makes Your Child Tick?: Using Your Child’s Interest To Build Communication Skills: Retrieved January 12, 2016: http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/What-Makes-Your-Child-Tick-.aspx
4. Paul, Rhea. (2006). Language Disorders From Infancy Through Adulthood. (3rd ed.)
St. Louis MO: Mosby Inc.
5. Pepper, Jan & Weitzman, Elaine. (2004). It Takes Two To Talk. Toronto, ON: The Hanen Centre.