Teaching, Not Testing – Ideas for Helping Your Child Learn Language at Home

I’m working with a great family right now. My little friend in this family is a darling boy who will be 2 in April, and he’s a total handful! He’s so unlike his older very compliant, very praise-driven sister, who I also had the privilege of working with a few years ago.

The sister was so different from most of the toddlers I’ve ever worked with in my career as a pediatric speech-language pathologist. Her parents, both highly educated professionals in the medical field, had managed to teach her not only all of the traditional body parts by the time she was 21 months old, but they had also helped her learn ones I think some full-grown adults might have trouble locating, like her kidneys! Did I mention Dad is a radiologist ?

To quote my dearly departed, very Southern grandmother “That’s all well and good.” (Whenever she used this phrase, it was always followed by a “but….”, and in this case it’s a very big “but.” BUT this little boy (and any other future siblings) will likely never be able to fill his older sister’s very big shoes.

That may never be a problem for my little friend, if he continues with his current temperament, because he’s as happy-go-lucky a toddler as I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t bother him to hear “no.” Actually “no” might be one of his favorite words since he seems to take it as the beginning of his next challenge.  He doesn’t mind if he’s reprimanded and made to sit in a chair or a toy is removed. He’s happy regardless. He likes it alright when we clap for him after he’s said a new word or completed a request we’ve asked him to do, but so far, approval, or even lack of it, doesn’t seem to motivate him as much as it did with his sister.

Herein lies the problem. This is how his mom and dad have been trained to parent, for 4 1/2 years now, by that older sister who learned to understand words quickly and still does most everything the very first time she’s told. Mom and Dad have learned to use praise to their advantage since this method was so successful with #1. When she was praised for good behavior or for learning a new task, she wanted to do it again and again. When her parents shoot her a disapproving glance or say her name with a disappointed tone, she responds.

When baby brother came along, like most of the other toddlers who’ve been born into this world, it’s not been that easy. He’s not cognitively challenged at all, but as far as language goes and certainly with behavioral directions, you have to tell him more than a time, or even two, in hopes of getting him to respond.

If these parents had had him first, they’d fully be able to appreciate just how easy older sister was, and is, and probably always will be. But this is hard when all you’ve known as a parent is a child of that variety. Little brother looks like he’s much more difficult than he really is.

By comparison he seems like he’s having real learning difficulties, when in fact, he’s likely just demonstrating a different learning style. Although older sister was a late talker, her strength so far seems to be strong auditory learning skills. You tell her, she hears it, she knows it. You read her book, or even 20 books, and she sits for the entire time, very engaged, and very interested in the wonderful explanations her parents give her. She was also very, very responsive. At 21 months she would sit and happily point to any picture her parents asked her to find. This was an enjoyable activity, not only for her, but for her parents.

Not so much for little brother. He won’t sit still for one book, and actually on most days, even half a book! This is especially true when his parents are asking him with questions and expecting the same level and style of participation. It’s not just that he won’t do it, he can’t do it. Not yet anyway.

To me at least part of the “issue” (and I use this term loosely because this behavior?is likely more “typical” than his sister!) for this little boy seems to be that he’s a do-er. This little guy has to feel it, and experience it, and DO it to learn it. Looking at a picture of a ball isn’t nearly as exciting as throwing, and kicking, and catching a real ball. Seeing the picture of a bird isn’t as much fun as watching the real bird fly and land right in front of him when he’s playing outside.

When Mommy or Daddy expect him to sit down and look at the book, he feels like he’s crawling out of his skin! When they start asking all the “Where – Where – Where” questions, he bolts! Without words he’s saying, “Get me outa here!!!”

One thing I recommended last time I was visiting this family was to make a philosophy shift in how we approach helping this little guy. Don’t get me wrong and misunderstand what we’re dealing with here. It’s not that he’s not making progress. In fact, he’s making great progress! In the short time I’ve seen him, he’s progressed from saying no words to using about 40 different words now on his own. He even imitated a few two-word phrases last time I was there. He’s now following simple directions in his daily routines most of, well at least some of, the time. He now plays with me for at least 45 minutes of our hour-long session IF I’ve planned ahead and include lots of FUN and movement-based activities and I’m sure to keep it rolling along so that we’re switching to a new toy when he’s giving me the signals that he’s “all done.” (Meaning he’s saying it, signing it, looking around for, or is getting up to find something else to do!)

I’m talking about how his parents work with him on a daily basis. Again- don’t get me wrong. It’s not just the hour he spends in speech therapy every 2 weeks that’s helped him. It’s how his parents have faithfully carried out recommendations when I’m NOT there that’s made the real difference.

But at this point in therapy, I do want to help them shift not necessarily WHAT they do, and maybe not even HOW they do it, but how they THINK about what they’re doing while they’re working with him.

With this little guy, it may be more helpful for them to think about him learning words from them while they are teaching him, and not necessarily testing him.

By this I mean dropping lots of the direct questions that he’s not responding to just yet. I mean that instead of asking questions to verify that he comprehends, that they do more telling, showing, and helping him learn while they play inside, play outside, eat meals, take a bath, get dressed, go to the store, AND even the dreaded book reading!

With this little guy and with all children like him who are not consistently responding to our barrage of questions, we should tell him more, show him more, and help him to do more rather than just asking him and then expecting him to perform.

This shift in mindset alone can take the pressure off a child who wants to do nothing more than escape. When the pressure is removed with these kinds of kids, wah-lah, they often rise to the occasion and “perform” more than they’d ever do otherwise.

Even if your wah-lah moment with him isn’t that same day or week or month, focusing on the TEACHING part rather than the TESTING will take the pressure off you too. When the focus becomes teaching him instead of measuring what he knows by how he responds, parents can relax and know that just because he’s not demonstrating that he “gets it” just yet, they are doing what they can to help him learn to understand.

In real life this looks like parents who go out of their way to label objects, actions, and people they want their child to know. They don’t just provide these words once to twice and then expect their children to know how respond to the questions.  They say these words over and over again, knowing that it may take a while to “see” results.

In phonological therapy there’s a widely-used method called “recasting.” Using this technique parents are instructed to say a target word 12-18 times over a few minutes and then repeat that same word 3 or 4 times later in the day in shorter bursts each time, say 4 to 6 repetitions, to help their child “hear” and “process” the word correctly. I’ve started mentioning these numbers to parents I’m seeing now to use with their children with receptive language issues. By using this number, I hope to give them a way to measure progress, not their child’s, but their own. If they are repeating a select number of target words this often, then they can feel successful that they are doing “teaching.” When parents focus on a few words like this several times a day for several weeks, chances are, their children will link meanings to the words and learn to understand, and hopefully, finally demonstrate that they understand. Isn’t that what teaching is all about?


  1. Lunelle Givens says

    I really enjoy this article, this little boy sound a lot like my daughter who is 23 months and not talking much. I will use the methods in this article to teach her, instead of testing her. I have also schedule an appointment for her to see her pediatrician.

  2. Kim says

    This scenario sounds similar to my two children. I am SO glad I found your website and will recommend your site to the the speech therapists that I work with.

  3. Carrie says

    This sound like my Vivian. She has been in speech therapy since she was 20 months old. She is constantly on the go and I was so glad that our therapist welcomed the high energy challenge she presented and has planned therapy that includes lots of movement activities. The funny thing is that now Vivian knows that her speech therapy is a fun time and actually focuses better during her sessions than at most other times (50 solid minutes of being totally engaged).

    I do see progress from therapy, but I guess I sometimes wonder how long it will take her to catch up. She is now 27 months old and we do not have a diagnosis of any sort (other than an expressive language delay – her hearing is fine). She has started some spontaneous language (cannot understand much of it) and has added to her vocabulary but still struggles with putting words together (a ball or kitty meow are her only two word phrases). I have asked her therapist her opinion and she seems pleased with Vivian’s effort and progress. Do kids with delays catch up rapidly or will this continue to be a gradual progression? Birth to 3 has already started the process of planning for when she turns 3 and I am not sure if we should put her in special ed preschool to keep her speech therapy or not. What would you suggest? Thanks.

  4. Laura says

    Carrie – Thanks for your questions. Some children do make rapid progress in therapy, but most are like your daughter and demonstrate more of a gradual rate of improvement. I ALWAYS encourage moms to plan for speech therapy beyond 3 and even beyond that. If you plan for it and she does make a rapid burst and doesn’t need speech therapy any more, it’s a happy surprise. If you haven’t made a plan and have to scramble at 3 to continue services, you’ll be panicked and may feel guilty that you didn’t follow your gut, be proactive, and plan to make sure she continues to get the help you need. Some moms even find themselves feeling a little disappointed that their child is not “all fixed” by 3, and that’s unfortunate too, since you don’t want to downplay what progress your child has made. ALL progress is great, even if it still doesn’t mean that a child is “caught up” just yet. Laura

  5. says

    Please help,I just found your website,my daughter is 3 and she has dispraxia, would your DVD’s help me, I am on waiting list everywhere close to me, can’t seem to get help, finally found something a 2 hour drive from me. My daughter has very few words, What is animal hospital. I need some kind of reponse please

  6. Laura says

    Davina – Teach Me To Talk with Apraxia and Phonological Disoders is designed for parents of young children with either of these speech/language disorders. I always recommend that parents start with the strategies in my first DVD Teach Me To Talk and then move on to the ones in the Apraxia DVD. While I ALWAYS think children with this kind of diagnosis need direct treatment from an experienced SLP, the DVD would certainly help get you started working with her at home and certainly would be better than nothing. Hope you get these and get started with her at home! Laura

  7. says

    Laura, Thank you for your help, I did go ahead and order the Teach me to talk DVD, how long does shipping take. I wasn’t sure. Also today I finally got an answer out of Kaiser ,after I have bugged them so much, They will start seeing her for 4 months, their system is weird. She also has a every 6 week appointment, she had that on Wed and did really well, but the speech patholigist said my daughter is the worst case of dyspraxia she has ever seen. Then I also have a chance for her to go in April to another place but that is two hour drive from my house. What is the differance between the dispraxia and apraxia
    Thank you fokr your help Davina

  8. Laura says

    Davina – She’s going to need therapy much more often than every 6 weeks, especially with a diagnosis like apraxia.
    Why is it that you can’t go more often? Is it because of location? Do you have other options in your town? If you’re in the USA, she can get speech from your local public school district.

    Just so you know apraxia and dyspraxia are often used interchangeably by SLPs, so think about it as the same. Technically apraxia is supposed to be more severe than dyspraxia, but most SLPs don’t use it this way.

    Also many professionals like OTs and PTs use the term dyspraxia too to refer to global motor planning difficulties throughout a child’s body- for example, planning how to use a pencil to write, or climbing the ladder by alternating your arms and legs/feet, and then flipping your legs around to go down the slide. However, a child can have verbal apraxia without having global dyspraxia or vice versa, but most of the time, there are global problems at well, even if they are subtle.

    Let me know how the DVD works for you when you get it. I tried to look up your order to see when it was shipped so I could tell you when you’d get it, but I couldn’t find it. You may have ordered with a different name. Most orders are shipped the next business day and arrive 2-3 days later via priority mail with the Post Office. If you’re outside the USA, of course it takes longer, but most people still have it within a week to 10 days. Laura

  9. Davina Youngberg says

    Thank you for the quick response, The order is under my husband’s name Nels B Youngberg. Anyway thanks for your help, I am working on getting her more speech, I am located in a really small town so everything is a drive for me. there just isn’t much out here, If I like the DVD than I will order the other ones too. Thanks Davina

  10. Tara says

    Hi Laura, Firstly thank you so much for producing this website…it’s been an invaluable help to me in working with my litle boy over the past 8 months or so.
    Oisin is 2yrs 4 months and he had virtually no comprehension of speech at 18 months, after a lot of hard work, his understanding has really blossomed. For the last month or so he has begun imitating sounds like bzzz for ‘bee says’ and eeeee for monkey says ‘ee ee’. He also copies my intonation when I say something to him and say ‘Oisins turn’. Anyway, out of nowhere he said ‘ancake’ for pancake while we were eating them about 3 weeks ago, the next day he said ‘ooking’ when I told him I was cooking. Then he came out with ‘oh no!’ while pointing to a dog barking at a cat, and the best so far, last weekend when I asked him if he wanted a bottle, a very definite ‘NO’! He spent all that day saying NO to things but never since. No matter how we engineer similar situations, he just never repeats any of the words he has already said. I really thought the NO was a breakthrough last weekend as he had been saying it all day…but sadly not since. Any ideas??? Would really love some encouragement that this will lead to speech!

  11. Laura says

    Tara – Rather than asking him if he wants on thing at a time which really is a yes/no answer,try giving him choices – Do you want your choo-choo or ball, juice or milk, cookie or cracker, etc… Also offer him things you KNOW he wants so that he is highly motivated to say those words. Take heart though – “no” is a word and it’s a very powerful one! Many toddlers recognize this power and get stuck here for a while. Keep encouraging him to repeat you offering things you know he wants and hold out for those words!! Laura

  12. Tara says

    Thanks Laura, I spoke with our SLP today and she says she has never heard of a child to say a word and then not repeat it. She thought it was very unusual and didn’t know why this is happening. I’m at my wits end trying to figure it out. Would you have any experience of this and what was the outcome? Also, can you advise me on which DVD to get for him and if you can accept paypal as payment (I’m based in Ireland, Europe.)

    Thanks again

  13. Laura says

    Tara – It’s not uncommon for children with motor planning issues (apraxia) or for children who aren’t processing what they are saying to “pop out” a word and then not be able to repeat that again. Look up the articles here on the site in the apraxia category for more info.

    Unfortunately Google is being very inconsistent about processing international orders. Email Johnny@teachmetotalk.com for additional suggestions for how to order the DVD. We are so frustrated with Google right now and are trying to find another solution for our international customers. Sorry! Laura

  14. jaime says

    I have a question… I just ordered the teach me to talk dvd. after reading this article my son is very much like the child mentioned above (out of what i read) and I was wondering if i should order the phonological dvd instead? I got a brief interview with a speech therapist who said my son is delayed expressive language and now I am waiting for early start eval. what do u think?

  15. Laura says

    Jaime – I ALWAYS recommend that you target language first with the basic strategies in the Teach Me To Talk DVD and then get the other one later on if you still need it. Since the SLP who saw him said it’s a language issue, you’ve done exactly what I’d have recommended too. Keep me posted on his progres, and thanks for your question! Laura

  16. Sol says

    Hi Laura,
    My son has a language delay and he also has some sensory issues; he does not always respond to his name, he sometimes over reacts to sounds like the vacuum cleaner and he even cries if you mention sounds that animals make like meow and moo. Is it common that children get agitated to the mention of animal sounds? Is there a link between language delay and sensory processing? Do you think he should see both an SLP and an OT or can the SLP take care of both problems? Please help. Thanks.

  17. Laura says

    Sol – Ideally you need OT AND SLP due to his language delay and sensory processing difficulties. If that’s not possible, go with a GREAT SLP with additional sensory issue training. I am very, very comfortable treating children with sensory issues due to my additional training, but not all SLPs are. Check with the SLP you’ll be seeing about her qualifications and what she likes to do. Many pediatric SLPs are well-versed in ideas to treat sensory processing differences. In the meantime, check out my new manual Teach Me To Play WITH You since it lists many ideas for handling sensory processing issues in play. Laura

  18. Amy says

    This article made me cry! It’s exactly what we are experiencing: We have a 4 year old, vocal, precocious daughter, and a silent but very active and mobile 16 month old son. I’ve been desperate to find a why to connect with him, and this article put so much into perspective for me. I feel so bad that it’s taken me 16 month to realize that I can not parent him the same way I’ve parented our daughter!

  19. Laura says

    Amy!! What a discovery you’ve made! I hope it’s getting better for you! You sound like a great mom, and I’ll bet your little boy will thrive from your new understanding! Good luck to you!! Laura

  20. Teresa says

    Laura – This article exactly describes my daughter and son! We are an American family living Indonesia for the next 3-5 years and I have a 26 month old son who is struggling with his speech. I am trying to locate resources here to help him but so far have not been successful. I spend hours on the internet researching and looking for ideas that I can use myself to help him and your website, especially this article, has by far been the most beneficial. My daughter is now 15 and has always been a great speaker. From infancy she loved praise and liked to perform and show people what she knew. My son on the other hand isn’t really fazed by praise at all. He is a happy, energetic, expressive child but only says about 30 real words and the only two word phrase he says is “Where ___”. I had been using the same techniques I used with my daughter which was primarily testing with questions. While my daughter thrived with this it only caused my son and me a lot of frustration and did not give results. This article has completely changed my approach and expectations of him. Thank you for that!
    I do have one question that I would like your input on, my husband’s first language is Spanish and mine of course is English. We want him to be bilingual, so based on advice of our pediatrician and seeing our friend’s children learn dual languages in this manner, we each speak our first language exclusively to him. He understands basic commands, such as close the door, turn off the lights, and get your shoes in both English and Spanish. Now that we are living in Indonesia he is also exposed to Bahasa Indonesian on a regular basis by his caretakers. What has been your experience with speech delay in dual language environments and would you recommend we continue using both languages?

  21. Laura says

    Hi Teresa. Lots of moms ask this question. The truth is, if any child is typically developing, learning more than one language is not a problem. BUT if he’s having difficulty learning language, those problems will show up in every language (and that is supported by lots of research).

    It’s great that he’s following some simple commands and using 30 words, but as you know, that’s below the MINIMAL expectation that we’d want to see for 24 months which is a 50 word spontaneous vocabulary and the ability to understand and follow a variety of two-step verbal directions. Exposure to more than one language can account for a lag in expressive language, but based on what you’ve said about your little guy, his delays extend to comprehension as well, and that’s what would be more concerning to me than anything.

    The recommendation for children with receptive language or comprehension issues is to SIMPLIFY so that they begin to link meanings and learn to understand language. Some children do begin to demonstrate greater and more consistent comprehension skills when their parents focus on teaching one language, but for many families, this is unrealistic. If the overall goal is to be bilingual, and it seems like this makes sense for your family and where you live, then you’ll need to keep plugging away at teaching language, but with more determined focus ot make sure he understands BEFORE you expect him to say the word in whatever language you’re using. When you change your teaching focus to comprehension, many times the expressive words follow without much additional effort… unless of course he also has a motor speech disorder or phonological disorder BUT at this point, comprehension is where I’d direct most of my focus for him knowing that when he understands more, he’ll say more. I hope that makes sense for you!

    I’ve known several friends who have moved to Indonesia and I’ve personally treated two children who are living there now. Finding services can be difficult! I think the families I’ve known have traveled to Singapore for evaluation and periodic therapy sessions. If things aren’t moving along for him in the next 6 months, I’d strongly recommend that you see someone who can give you more specific recommendations for your little boy.

    Thanks so much for your comment. Please feel free to email me any other specific questions at Laura@teachmetotalk.com. Laura

  22. Rogz says

    my nephew talks well, but does not know how or what he means or don.t know what we mean when we ask him something like do you know why your crying? like that. when he crys he crys hard like he being punished or something . we ask why he crying and he crys harder. why would he be like that. even when you ask him to sit down and watch tv with us he does the same thing. it all seems wierd to have a child do that. my two yr old son seems to know more than him by understanding what you talk or do

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