How to get your toddler talking: Thoughtful Communication

Jan 1, 2016

Do you want simple to apply techniques to help your toddler learn to talk? This series introduces the best strategies for boosting young children’s language skills. It all starts with thoughtful communication.

Thoughtful communication means slowing down and thinking about how we speak with our children, paying attention to their responses, and developing great interactions. In this post I introduce the basic ingredients of communication that will help your child’s speech development.

CommunicationPin_blog1. Be present

To communicate well with our children we need to be present, paying attention to them, and avoiding rush or distractions. This is so important, and yet often very difficult in our frantic daily lives as parents. Try to make times in the day where you slow down and focus on the present interaction that you are having with your child. This can greatly improve daily routine activities, like diaper changes and mealtimes, but it’s best of all in playtimes. There’ll be a whole post on play soon.

Being present is important for language learning, because it gives you the chance to look your child in the eyes, slow down your own speech to a rate they can understand, and listen to their responses. Next time you’re rushing through an activity, whether that’s getting your child up the stairs or reading a story, pause and ask yourself: what’s the rush? Sometimes there’s a real reason to hurry, but at others there isn’t; it’s just habit. If you can slow down, do so. Look at your child and notice how they are right now.

2. Get involved

Notice what your child is interested in, and get involved with that. Maybe they enjoy spotting airplanes flying overhead. Maybe they’re enjoying some cheese and apple. Maybe they’d love to play blocks with you. These are wonderful opportunities for language learning. Enter your child’s world, and talk about what interests them.

3. Simplify

Try to adapt your language so that your little one can understand you. This ought to be obvious, but very often we talk too fast and too much for toddlers to follow. Think about their current level of language and try to speak at or just above that level for at least some of the time. For example, if they do not yet use words, try using single words in some of your communication, e.g. saying, ‘Eat! Mmmm, eat!’ during a meal. If they use single words, try using some two-word phrases, e.g ‘Yummy biscuit!’ Obviously we won’t speak like this all the time, but it is a good idea to pitch some of our communication at a very simplified level so that our children can understand and imitate us.

4. Listen and take turns

Pause after speaking and listen to your child’s response. If they don’t yet use words, body language can communicate a lot. They may be trying to use words, but not speaking clearly. Respond to any gestures or attempts at words. This shows your child that their communication matters. It’s even better when we respond to what they say, for example by getting them a toy or a drink that they want. They learn that words are powerful, and that gives them a reason to talk!

During play and other interactions remember to take turns with your child, as you would in any conversation. Pause to listen or watch, then respond. There’ll be more about turn-taking in play in a future post.

5. Expand

Depending on your child’s current level of language development, you might hear them make attempts at words, short phrases, or grammatically complex sentences. You can support their development by expanding on what they say. If your child says, ‘Dog!’, you could say, ‘Yes! Big dog!’ or ‘Yes! I see a dog.’ If your child says, ‘I play blocks’, you could say, ‘I’m playing with blocks, too!’

One of the benefits of expanding on what our children say is that it gives us the chance to model pronunciation and sentences without obviously ‘correcting’. So, if what your child actually says is ‘doh!’ for ‘dog’, you can say, ‘Yes! Dog! Hello dog’, which gives them an opportunity to hear the correct sound. Saying, ‘Not ‘doh’, say ‘doG’,’ could discourage a child. They might not be physically ready to make that sound.

6. Repeat

Don’t we all know that looking after little children involves a lot of repetition! Favorite games, rituals and, of course, routine activities, like changes and baths, get replayed every day, sometimes several times a day. While this can be boring for adults, it’s great for toddlers because they learn through repetition. Language in particular is learned by hearing the same words and phrases over and over. Make the most of daily activities and favorite games to repeat words and phrases until your child makes them their own.

7. Have fun together

Having fun together makes for great interactions with toddlers. Whether you’re playing or putting on shoes, take a moment to smile, touch and share a little warmth. Be silly and surprising – toddlers respond to this with delight. Have a funny conversation with your child’s favorite toy, or try tickling a picture of a cat in the story you’re reading together and get your child to copy.

Along with having fun in your interactions, try not to test your child or expect too much of them. When we’re trying to get our children to talk it’s so tempting to ask a lot of questions: ‘What’s that?’ ‘What color is it?’ ‘Is it a big dog or a little dog?’… These questions can cause stress for a little child, especially if they are struggling with speech. Sometimes questions are fun, when used in the context of happy play, but try to be sensitive to when your toddler is not enjoying them and when you might be using too many. Keep your communication fun and meaningful, and your child will want to take part without test questions to prompt them.

I hope these tips for more thoughtful communication with toddlers will help you in supporting your child’s language development. Next up in this series, I’ll be posting all about play, the best time to build strong communication and language skills.

Check out my book for effective strategies to get your little one talking, and hundreds of fun playtime activities to share. If you found this post helpful please consider using the buttons to share on Facebook or Pinterest – thanks!

This post is shared at Practical Mondays.


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