Tuesday, April 17, 2012

10 ways to encourage your child to talk

If you have a child who has challenges with speech, you're always up for a good tip... or trillion! I've got ten great ones here from Sherry Artemenko, a pediatric speech-language pathologist in Southport, CT who's the founder of Play On Words and the PAL Award (Play Advances Language). She's also a columnist for PediaStaff. Says Sherry, "These tips to encourage language development apply to children delayed in learning to communicate whether they are using gestures, sounds, words or an augmentative communication system such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), PODD (Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display) or others. Our goal is for children to experience the joy of being independent communicators, and have a voice." A-men!  

DO talk a lot to your child as you go through your day, describing your activities as well as his. Whether you’re playing at the park, grocery shopping, walking through a museum or making dinner, talk about what you see, feel, taste and experience. Children take in more language when it relates to what they are doing. For example, you could say "I'm getting out the big pot to fill it with water. Let's open the end of the pasta box and empty it!", demonstrating words like "open" and "end" as you speak to them. Multi-sensory experiences reinforce learning—seeing, describing, feeling, smelling the pasta.

DO pause when you talk and read to a child with speech and language delays. Many children need extra time to process the language, as well as formulate a reaction or response to what you are reading. I like to linger on a page of a picture book, commenting on the illustrations or what I might like about that part of the story, and then pause for the child to offer her thoughts.

DON’T talk for your child, whether he encounters a new peer or wants a drink of milk. You rob him of the joy of initiating communication. I see the demeanor of my kids change as they are able to make their needs known, if only by a sound, sign or picture but they are proud of their contribution to the conversation. Communication is inherently rewarding. You might have to clarify what he says, or fill in more language to the listener but let him engage.

DO choose toys thoughtfully that have open-ended play scenarios (lots of props for different story angles) and plenty of people, animals or characters to have conversations. A train set without people loses language learning potential since a person can drive the train, sell or collect tickets, pack his bag for the trip or greet Grandma at the station. Engage with your child and follow his lead in play, providing good language models as you participate as his conversational partner.

DON'T ask too many questions. You don't want to "test" your child by saying "What's this?" or "What's that?" Kids have to stop their train of thought, process the question, and then formulate an answer. Questions are fine when used naturally in a situation, such as "Do you want pancakes or cereal for breakfast?" I often tell parents to talk to your child the way you would like to be talked to. Does anyone like to be peppered with questions? I don’t!

DO be patient. Learning to communicate can take time. I took countless walks around the same block with a little 2 1/2-year-old boy, naming dirt, berries, dogs and water, until one day we were standing on our favorite bridge throwing rocks into the creek and he finally said his first word, “Rock!” His mother and I cheered. My only regret is that I didn’t jump in the water and retrieve that precious rock to commemorate the day.

DO praise attempts at communicating and repeat the correct model of what your child intended to communicate, such as “Yes! Want. You want some juice!” You are teaching your child the correct way to say a word as well as building vocabulary around that situation, expanding on what he is talking about.

DON'T ask abstract questions such as "What did you do in school today?" Instead, pull a paper or object out of your child's backpack and start discussing it. It's much easier for a child with speech or language delays to be prompted by a leaf, art project or picture and have the thought started for them to complete than to call up the events of the day and formulate them into sentences. Your child will feel successful, and so will you because you'll hear a little nugget about their day!

DO keep in step with your speech language pathologist and know exactly what to listen for and reinforce in your child’s speech. This is a dynamic process—we are doing diagnostic therapy, meaning we are trained to see every little step of progress your child makes and challenge her to move ahead. I have seen kids improve when I asked parents to give a “Great job!” or “Yes!” after a gesture, any vocalization or any vocalization other than the single sound their child typically used. What are the specific sounds, words or pictures your child is starting to master and should be praised at home? By the way, this keeps you in tune with your child’s progress too.

DO keep other caregivers, family members and teachers outside school informed of what your child is capable of saying, either verbally or through a communication device, so she receives plenty of practice and becomes confident in her ability to communicate. I often start with therapy in the homes of little ones who are delayed and just beginning to talk. As soon as they are able to produce a sound or syllable at will, I get permission to have some sessions in their preschool or daycare setting. I usually find that well-intended teachers are talking “for” the child and not requiring her to make her needs known. I demonstrate what the child can do and ask that they wait for some form of communication before giving her more snack, helping with a task, or giving her a toy.

Just remember, I only see your child a few hours a week; YOU are their first and primary teacher. Parents who partner with me and follow through at home see delightful progress because of their efforts. Go team!


  1. With the exception of a few suggestons specific to a speach delayed child, these suggestions are great for a parent of ANY child . I used most of them with both my kids, the one who spoke in sentances at 15 months and the one who said her first word at age 3.

    To many parents of kids speak for them. Even if a child is more than capable of speaking they do it. And most parents know the uselessness of asking a child what they did at school that day.

  2. All great tips and things that I think most parents probably do without thinking about it. My only quibble with this is that it's skewed toward verbalization versus communication. Yes, I know, there's a brief mention of alternate means of communicating at the top of the article, but the language used throughout clearly is geared toward *talking*. Yes, I realize it's a matter of semantics, but it's an important distinction to draw. I admit, it's an issue I am sensitive to as a parent of a nonverbal eight year old who uses a speech-generating device. :-)

  3. Thanks for posting this! I have to admit that I did these things well with my older children who didn't have communication problems, but with my youngest who does, I have to remind myself to allow time for him to try to communicate. I have to remind myself to talk to him more because he doesn't ask questions about things or point at something wanting a label for it, thereby cueing me to say something. This is really helpful and I already forwarded it to my husband.

  4. we were guilty of asking the "what did you do today?" question, which M could never answer. he'd revert to the line "i teach-ed the kids how to go to the bathroom." now the school sends home a folder with a few PECS pictures of what happened in school, and we use that to cue M on what to talk about. he can look at the picture and it focuses his speech. it doesn't always work, and he doesn't necessarily say a lot, but it's definitely helping!

  5. great tips I have a story from my younger years when I had everyone convinced at school i couldn't talk ... go check it out its called getting me to talk at school

  6. Ok, can I just rip face to no one in particular, just to rip face.... She is 17, and I've fought since day one. I'm tired, really tired. I've got to say I don't care today. I.ve cared sooooooo long.


Thanks for sharing!

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