Great Books for Toddlers with Speech Language Delays (with Therapy Activities!)
This morning a mom who read my “First Sessions” toy list asked me if I would send her a list “just like that” for my favorite books to use with toddlers during those first few speech therapy sessions. This post is my answer to her request!
Before I share my list of GREAT Books for Toddlers, let me pass on my BEST tidbits of wisdom I’ve discovered during my 20+ year career for using books with toddlers with speech-language delays. The first recommendation is critical:
If a young child HATES books, don’t force him to read!
Some parents and therapists are surprised at this advice because we all know how beneficial reading is for kids, but let me tell you why forcing a toddler to read is counterproductive.
When you force a toddler to participate in a truly non-preferred activity, particularly during the first few therapy sessions when you’re just getting to know each other, he’s not going to learn anything other than YOU are someone he DOES NOT LIKE because you make him do things he HATES. Therefore, he may begin to HATE you too. (Sad, but true!)
As a parent, we have to make our own children do things they don’t want to do every day – take baths, brush their teeth, change a dirty diaper, turn off the iPad or TV, go to bed, take medicine, and on and on and on…
But as a speech pathologist, you really don’t have to do things a toddler doesn’t like, especially in the beginning. During those first few sessions concentrate on building your relationship, or as I like to think of it, developing a special friendship with a child. I don’t understand why a therapist would want anything else. My cornerstone philosophy is this…
I want the child to like me.
So do you!! Here’s why…
When a child likes you, he wants to be near you. Being near you is necessary because he has to be near you to learn ANYTHING you want to teach him.
When he’s running away from you, he’s not learning. When he’s hitting you, he’s not learning. When he’s crying, he’s not learning. When he’s doing anything except looking at you and listening to you and engaging with you, he’s not learning. Period.
As I tell parents all the time, I want your child to come to associate me with fun and to believe that I am “the giver of good things.” In order for that to happen, I have to give a child something he likes, rather than something he HATES.
If you continue to insist that a toddler read a book with you and he doesn’t like it, he’s naturally going to do everything he can to resist. Ignoring you, moving on, running away, hitting, biting, or just plain checking out. As we’ve already established, NONE of those behaviors facilitates learning.
So it’s YOUR job, as the therapist or a parent, to make this activity something he doesn’t want to resist. If you can’t figure out ways to help him happily participate in reading, then my best piece of advice would be:
Don’t try books… yet…
Establish a child’s participation with you by playing together doing whatever he loves FIRST and then gradually move toward including books as a part of your therapy session. For additional information about why I believe it’s important to choose things a child likes during therapy, take a look at this post:
The good news is…
I have some super tricks that will make reading much more fun for many of our little friends who don’t necessarily HATE books, but who don’t exactly love them either. I’ll be including those tips as I present my list of books.
If you’d like to dig in with a more comprehensive discussion of these ideas, a couple of years ago I did a whole series of podcasts about books called “Making Books Better.” It includes milestones and theory in addition to a TON of practical, usable information and more specific “how to” guidance than I can list here in a post. Here are the links to those shows for you:
Making Books Better Podcast
Other quick tips to make reading books with toddlers with developmental delays easier for YOU:
1. Choose CARDBOARD books for toddlers and preschoolers. A long, long time ago I realized that I tend to get a little cranky when one of my little friends rips a page… To avoid that unfortunate but very common occurrence, I use only cardboard books!
2. Consider when you read with a toddler. Pick a time when a child is more likely to participate. If a child is all wound up, it’s probably not a good time for a book. If a child needs to run around to release some pent up energy, let her do that first, then read. If a child is hungry, feed him first, or better yet, let him eat while you read. Choosing better timing is all it takes for some children to begin to like books.
In sessions with busy kids, I try to pull out a book when a child is seeking comfort or is settling down. This is why reading at bedtime is so popular.
It’s also why reading during a therapy session can be a challenge. Sometimes we’ve worked hard to rev up a child’s little system to get him to the point where he can talk and perform, and then we switch gears and expect him to listen to a book. This can be too passive for many of our little friends, especially when they don’t really understand the words they’re hearing. We’ll have to tweak when and how we present the book to make it more active and more meaningful during therapy. These same strategies can work at home too for a child who has rejected a parent’s attempts to introduce books.
3. Sit together to read. I hold toddlers in my lap all the time to read books. Body on body contact is regulating and calming for young children, particularly when a toddler has a tough time sitting still. Holding him or her will also help build that all important social and emotional connection with a child. As therapists who work in early intervention, establishing this connection should be one of our first and primary goals. If a child will let you connect with him like this, it is a great beginning.
For toddlers who don’t like to be held, sit across from them and hold the book facing them to show them the pictures. If you’re having a hard time establishing joint attention while reading, meaning that the child no longer includes you in reading once he sees the book, sitting across from him will make it much more likely that he remembers you’re still there! Sometimes I even place a kid on a low coffee table or couch. I sit on the floor so that my face is level with the book and it’s more likely they’ll notice me as we read together.
4. Do your best to maintain control of the book. If a toddler gets upset and won’t let you hold the book, do your best to stay engaged and making yourself a necessary part of the activity without forcing him into a meltdown. No child learns language during a power struggle, so do everything you can to avoid them!
When a child won’t look at books unless she’s in total control, reading is not a shared activity. Until a child lets you participate and listens to you talk about what she’s seeing, there’s no language component to this activity. Remember the way children learn language:
A child has to hear words before she learns to understand words.
A child must understand words before she learns to say words.
In a nutshell, an adult has to be a part of reading books in order for books to “count” as helping a child learn language. You can make an argument for providing books as a valuable solo activity for all children. However, for a toddler with a language delay, there’s no real language teaching going on unless you’re helping a child learn to link meaning with the pictures they’re seeing.
Upon closer inspection for some of these children, you may realize that she isn’t really even looking at the pictures. She may flip pages hurriedly or hold her face close to the page. In this instance, the child is engaging in visual self-stimulation, or “stimming,” and a book is not going to be your best tool to teach that child to understand and use words. Back up and teach this child to play together with you and include you in her activities. My best resource for this is Teach Me To Play WITH You.
Now that we’ve covered those basics, let’s move on to my list of Great Books for Toddlers! I’m also going to share with you a few of the ways I use these books during therapy sessions because frankly, you should be using different books for different purposes to target different goals with different kids. Do you see a theme here? You should tailor the book to the child and the specific skill you’re working toward. Of course you can use the same books for multiple purposes, but as you read, you’ll see what I mean…
1. Photograph Books with only 1 or 2 pictures per page
I LOVE Roger Priddy’s simple picture books and own so many that I can’t pick just one! Here are a few of my favorites for toddlers who don’t understand very many words yet.
Because you’re using photographs instead of cartoons or drawings, these pictures are more like REAL LIFE. This is particularly important for children with global, cognitive, and receptive language delays who may have difficulty understanding any kind of symbolism or have difficulty making associations and connections. They may not “get” that the picture of the sippy cup in the book is the same as their own sippy cup. When we use simple, realistic pictures, books become more meaningful for these toddlers.
The most obvious way to use this kind of beautiful book of real photographs is to teach early picture identification. You’ll do this by first “teaching” the words, which means you should point to the picture as you say the name of the picture OVER and OVER and OVER again. To learn to understand words and to eventually be able to point to pictures, a child has to hear the word OVER and OVER and OVER. There’s a theme here! It’s repetition.
When you are working with any late talker, one of the first things you have to do is to make sure is that a child understands words. If a two- year-old cannot point to several familiar pictures on request, and by that I mean consistently looking for and finding the right picture when you say, “Where’s the ____?” then he likely has a receptive language delay. This means a child doesn’t understand words as well as he should for his age. Many, many, many parents miss this important reason a toddler isn’t talking. If you suspect this could be a remote possibility for your child, please read this post:
If you’re thinking, my child knows the pictures, but he just won’t point when I ask him AND if this same child doesn’t consistently follow simple directions, then I would also, very gently, encourage you to consider the possibility of a receptive language delay. Receptive language delays are so overlooked in early intervention and even by pediatricians who mean well, but who don’t really understand language development themselves. I specialize in receptive language delays in toddlers and have some super information in my DVD series Teach Me To Listen and Obey 1 and 2. Take a look at those fantastic resources for hands-on and immediate help for you! Just today a mom emailed to tell me how effective the DVD has been for her son after she implemented my “Tell him. Show him. Help him” approach.
Back to photograph books…
The very BEST way I use simple picture books is to teach a child to follow directions using a book like this one.
Using this cute book about babies, you would teach very simple actions such as:
Kiss the baby. Pat the baby. Tickle the baby.
This kind of teaching is wonderful for kids who like books, but who don’t have great play skills yet or who have difficulty following verbal directions. In addition to working on receptive language, what you’re really teaching a child here is to imitate actions. This is the one of the first developmental steps in learning how to talk. Here’s a little summary of how I introduce this kind of activity with a book:
Keep your language very simple. Avoid over-talking since you can overstimulate a child with too much language and actually drive him away. Label the picture and keep your comments brief. Then once you’re sure the child is staying with you, begin to model the action you want him to complete. For example with this book with babies, this is what I would say:
“Baby! Ahhh baby! Look! Baby! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss the baby! Kiss! Give baby a kiss.”
Model and practice that same action several times as you’re saying “Kiss!” If a child doesn’t lean in to try to kiss the baby, move the book toward the child’s mouth. Don’t force him, but do help him. Keep it light and fun and keep kissing the baby’s picture yourself as a “model” for what you want him to do.
Patting is another action to try. Say something such as:
“Pat, pat pat! Pat the baby! Ahhh…. Pat! Pat that baby.”
If a child doesn’t pat the baby’s picture, offer hand over hand assistance and help a child complete this action.
Other movements you can try are tickle, hug, and give the baby a “high 5.” With a few props you could teach: wash the baby, feed the baby, hide the baby, etc…
If a child doesn’t like babies, find a book with something he does like. Here are other ones I’ve used based on a child’s individual preferences.
Here’s another hint…It doesn’t even have to make sense to you! If a child LOVES trucks, then you could even use a book like this one to teach him to imitate actions and follow directions – I have! My little friend who was obsessed with trucks was fine kissing and patting his beloved “tu.”
Certainly you can extend this concept with other kinds of books. If you’re using a book with a picture of a door, model knocking on the door. If there’s a flower, pretend to smell the flower. Imitating actions is always a great beginning goal for late talking toddlers and using a book can be a very successful way to help a child learn how to do this!
Here’s one more suggestion in this category of simple photograph books. I bought this book several years ago and have replaced the batteries, but it’s still going strong!
As a rule, I don’t like many “sound” books or books with buttons, but this one is EXTREMELY enticing for toddlers who don’t usually attend to books. You’ll want to be sure a child doesn’t perseverate, or become “stuck,” pushing the buttons. To prevent that, MAINTAIN CONTROL OF THE BOOK! Here’s the BEST way I begin with this book to focus on learning words rather than pushing buttons…
Open the book. Point to the picture as you’re naming the picture several times. Then say, “Let’s find it! Where’s the ____?” as you point to the buttons. If the child has difficulty finding the correct button, use your hand and arm to cover most of the buttons except the correct choice and 1 or 2 other options. Provide gentle hand-over-hand assistance if he needs help to push the button or can’t locate the correct button. Let the child push a couple of times, then return your attention to the pictures. It may help to flip the page to redirect the child’s attention. I also tap the picture several times to call attention to the picture. Some toddlers become fascinated with that tapping sound and will begin to imitate pointing.
2. Books Based on Songs
When a child likes music, books based on songs are a natural extension of this interest. If I’m working with a child who loves for me to sing, but hates reading books, this is my go-to trick! The song is your “hook” to capture a child’s attention.
Begin by singing the song as you normally would, and then the second time you start to sing the same song, pull out the book based on the song. Point to the picture that corresponds to the words you’re singing. It’s important to continue to sing the song in the same way you always do so that the child stays with you and begins to associate the book with the song.
Over time, move from true singing to using a more sing-song kind of speaking voice, and then to a more natural (but still animated!) reading voice with the same books. After a while, introduce other kinds of books still using your sing-song voice since you know a child responds well to this strategy.
Here are a few other titles to consider:
If you need some help remembering children’s songs or simple games and could use a little guidance with how to make these activities FUN for children who love music but who don’t interact or play with others very well, take a look at the description of my book Teach Me To Play With You in that link.
3. Moo Baa La La La
All of Sandra Boynton’s books are precious, but my favorite is the one I have here, Moo Baa La La La. I’ve adapted this book to use with my little friends who are so BUSY that they can’t sit still for a book.
It’s easier to explain this on video than in writing, so watch this Therapy Tip of the Week video to see how I’ve modified this kind of book and then make it even more fun by adding other options for the pictures.
When you adapt the book, you’ll be giving a child something to do with the book, which means that he or she now has a reason to stay with you. Personally, I’ve had so much success with this method for years during speech therapy. After I published this Therapy Tip of the Week video last year, SLPs and Moms have emailed me to RAVE about how well this idea has worked.
It will take some extra time and a little investment to prepare this activity, but it can result in dramatic improvements.
I’ve also adapted other board books using this same method with great success. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a fantastic one to try because you can use it to teach so many concepts! For my youngest friends, I copied and laminated the first caterpillar and the food pictures. Make the caterpillar “eat” the food pictures for another fun extension of this book!
4. Happy Colors – Bright Baby Books
This darling set is similar to the books listed in #1, but the complexity increases since there are several pictures per page. The activity I’m going to share is so special that it’s worth its own category! Here’s the book I used to set up this activity in 2010 and I’m still using the set today!
In this activity you’re teaching a child to match pictures to objects. For this activity, you will need to do additional work, but the results will justify your prep time! Let me share all the types of kids who will benefit from this activity:
- A BUSY toddler who needs something more to do with a book than listen in order to keep his attention, but who is ready for a slight increase in difficulty.
- A young child who understands some words and is following a few simple directions like those in #1, but who does not “get” pictures yet and is not pointing to pictures when you ask “Where’s the ___?”
- Kids who only ‘tolerate’ books love this activity and with exposure to books in this context, they learn to like reading.
- This is my favorite ‘beginner’ activity with books for many toddlers when language delay is the only or primary issue.
To organize this activity, you’ll gather objects to match pictures in the book. Try to match objects and pictures as closely as you can so that it makes sense to the child. It will not be necessary to find an object for every single picture, but try to get at least a couple of objects per page/s.
Because this is one of my standard therapy activities, I keep all of these things together in a bag so they’re ready to go when I need them. Moms I’ve worked with have also put together their own bags and have even taught babysitters and grandparents how to use this activity.
I also like to have a container or a bucket for the child to put the object away after she’s selected it to keep her on task and coming back to the book – otherwise she may decide just to play and not come back to you and the book!
When you’re first beginning, you’ll only ask a child to find one object for each page so that you can keep it moving pretty fast. I like to start with objects and pictures I think a child already knows so we build in a pattern of success from the beginning.
Here’s how to play:
Set out a few of your objects – don’t overwhelm a child with too many choices – pick 2 or 3. Say something like, “Look! Let’s find this one!” as you point to the picture and then say, “Where’s the ________?” as you say one of the objects you have available for her. Praise her liberally when she finds it or provide additional cues if she doesn’t.
I also have a child turn the pages if it seems to keep them involved in the book AND if it doesn’t provoke them into wanting to hold the book.
If you’ve bought my first course on DVD or if you’ve seen me teach that course live, I show a CUTE clip of my little friend Kellie and me using this activity in the Receptive Language Section. Take a look at that for a refresher!
This matching activity is a great way to keep kids involved, but it isn’t solely dependent on the book. Beyond teaching matching, you’re helping kids who don’t seem to understand the symbolism of pictures. You’re teaching them that the picture represents the object.
This one way of integrating real objects has been hands-down the most successful strategy I’ve ever used to help a child learn to identify pictures and to participate with books when he or she has shown little interest in the past. If you’re the kind of person who says, “Just give me one great take away idea …” then this one is it! Get this book or a similar one, dig through your toys to find matches, or if you have to, get to Dollar Store and find the objects for your book. You’ll prep for this one time and then you have the activity FOREVER which is totally worth it!
5. Little Blue Truck
This has become my standard therapy activities in the last year because it’s SUPER engaging, especially for little boys who are fascinated with trucks and other things that go! The book has been even more fun now since I began to read it with “props.” As we did in the last activity, find toys that look very, very, very similar to the pictures in the book and then act out the story as you read.
As with the last activity, you’re giving the child something to do besides sit there and listen, which is huge for our busiest little guys who become “antsy” when they aren’t moving. This strategy has also helped several of my little friends who love books, but who don’t know how to play with toys. The book serves as a “script” for what to do and how to use the toy.
I implement this idea in therapy by reading a page and then playing with the toys. If a child doesn’t catch on immediately, I slow down a bit, read a line in the book again, and then very purposefully show a child exactly what to do with the toys. As I play, I rephrase any words I don’t think he understands.
I’ve taught this method to several families (and therapists) over the last year for kids who like books, but who have significant language delays and limited play skills. My Little Blue Truck bag has become a staple for their therapy programs and at home with parents to teach them how to play and associate the words in their books (or movies!) with real life. It’s also been helpful in teaching a child to consistently follow your directions with very few of the “compliance” issues we can sometimes see because they think they’re just playing. I’m sneaky like that and it works so well!
Last Christmas I videoed an extensive version of this idea. Before you watch, let me caution you… DON’T BE INTIMIDATED by the lengths I went to in order to recreate this book. My “every day” therapy sets of books with toys don’t have nearly the number of objects I included for the video. Start small! My original set for the Little Blue Truck I have linked here consisted of a blue truck, a dump truck, and several of the animals in the book. Over time, I built up inventory of potential props and I went all out for this Christmas Little Blue Truck since I was making a video for a course I was teaching.
6. From Head to Toe
I love any book by Eric Carle, but this one has become my favorite. Let me tell you who it works for:
- “Busy” kids who can’t sit still and need to move.
- Kids with limited vocabulary words – teach ACTIONS or verbs!
- Groups of kids (You know when you walk in the daycare and suddenly, you’re the teacher!?!?)
- Toddlers who are isolated and unaware of others but who respond to books.
- Children with limited social skills who are ready for the next step. They may notice peers during gross motor activities like running on the playground, but they don’t yet participate in true parallel play.
Your goal is to get a child to imitate and perform the action in the book. Introduce the book by saying something like, “Let’s do what’s in the book!” Read a page, show a child how to copy the action, and encourage the child to imitate too. Everyone present should participate, including mom, siblings, or other children in a child’s class if you’re using this as a group activity. Read the entire book keeping it light and fun, even if the child isn’t 100% compliant. Use hand over hand assistant to help a child perform the movements if it’s not too disruptive and it doesn’t evoke negativity or an avoidance reaction from the child.
This book is repetitive so there’s a Verbal Routine. The repetitive line is, “Can you do it? I can do it!” I think it’s always fun if you can get your group to “yell” that line with you after they’ve heard you read it a time or two. The group yelling usually entices little ones who are reluctant to participate to try the action and they begin to anticipate the words. You may even get some early word attempts as their friends or family “yell.” This technique is called Vocal Contagion and it’s so effective for late talkers!
The two important language strategies you’re using with this book are teaching a child to imitate body movements and verbal routines. You can find detailed instructions for using those techniques in my book Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers.
Other books I’ve used to teach whole body imitation, particularly with groups of toddlers, are:
Here’s the original book I used for this idea back in the ’90’s when I was a new grad and Barney was “in”:
All things Barney are PRICEY now since he’s a collector’s item, but if you have a child who’s still watching old re-runs, this one may be worth your while. I used my copy a couple of years ago when I saw a child who was the youngest of 9! His older siblings loved Barney and his mom still had her VHS tapes she copied from original PBS episodes! Wow… This book was one of his FAVORITE therapy activities. I’m glad I kept it all these years!
7. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
If you’ve followed teachmetotalk.com for very long, you may be surprised that this book made my list since I PREACH teaching words that are meaningful and functional for late talkers.
Let me restate this… you should not worry about teaching a late talker letters, numbers, colors and shapes. Working on those words makes no sense at all when a child is not talking! A child should learn to say words he needs and can use all day long rather than ABCs, counting, or any of those other “academic” concepts. We should never focus on teaching this kind of vocabulary until a child is communicating pretty well. I encourage parents of the children I treat to hold off on teaching colors, shapes, numbers and letters until a child is consistently using short phrases.
There are some children who seem to have taught themselves letters, numbers, colors or shapes. I’ve seen children who were fascinated, almost obsessed, with this kind of visual information. When I see a child with this “splinter skill” for therapy, I use it as my way “in” with that child. I teach him to include me in his play by sharing his interest.
For young children like this, start with a book that includes his preference. With a child who is fixated on letters, I introduce this book and target listening practice by reading the book and then asking him to “Show me the b,” or “Where’s that r again?” or “Find the g and the h,” or “Where’s the yellow t?” You’ll make him feel successful since this is what he LOVES, but here’s what else you’re doing in those early sessions:
- Making a connection with a child who may be difficult to engage
- Targeting language processing or “listening” since he’s following directions
- Building compliance since he’s responding to what you ask him to do
- Meeting him where he is by using his quirk as a STARTING point and then bumping up the complexity as you become more creative about what you ask
I add magnetic letters like those you put on your refrigerator and “act out” the book with the letters as I read. You can use the side of the refrigerator. I’ve made a tree from construction paper and taped it on a metal cookie sheet for the background to play with the letters. It’s a great way to draw a child’s attention to me when he tends to leave me out of reading books.
Children who are “echolalic” with their favorite books, meaning they memorize and repeat the book out of context, often are initially confused when I demonstrate the book or what they’re saying, but if you keep at it, they will become intrigued. In some instances I’ve quickly noted huge progress in how they connect with me during an activity like this using their “echoed” topic.
If you have a child who FREAKS OUT over numbers, then I’d go with this version:
Here’s a Therapy Tip of the Week video where I’m discussing using a child’s special interest in this way with books:
- Brown Bear, Brown Bear
I’m going to end this list with the quintessential speech therapy book that every SLP can quote in her sleep. We ALL own and use this book. Let me share a few of my best ways to use this book with toddlers.
For starters, the version I’ve posted here has a very cool sliding feature that even the “most belligerent hater of books” kid cannot resist! I’ve seen children dramatically improve their ability to point after we’ve practiced with this book because they learn to isolate their finger to slide the page.
Our little friends who are iPad-addicted like this version of Brown Bear, Brown Bear because it’s like ‘swiping’ an app! If you’re trying to help a little one break their addiction to technology (and I’m not even kidding!) or if you’ve become too app-dependent yourself in therapy, this is a great transition activity to help either of you back to interacting during real life with real people with more traditional activities!
Other excellent ways you can use Brown Bear:
- Teach the signs for the animals. It’s a great vocabulary extender!
- Do one Google search for matching pictures and use them on AAC devices!
- Copy and laminate your pictures to use with Velcro like we discussed for book #3 or matching objects as I talked about for book #4!
But my second FAVORITE thing I do with Brown Bear is teaching…
Many toddlers begin speech therapy with the ability to make an animal sound or two and aren’t ready to jump to single words. Spend some time in this vocal play stage since you know this is where they can be successful! Check out this post for more ideas with play sounds… Let’s Make Some Noise! (For SLPs who need more help knowing the prerequisites for talking, get your hands on my CE courses on DVD – Early Speech-Language Development: Taking Theory to the Floor or Steps to Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers!)
My BEST way and my FAVORITE way I use Brown Bear is to teach the word (or sign) for “me.” The word “me” is the last word of every page so it’s repetitive and qualifies as a Verbal Routine. A child begins to expect that word and if you set it up right, will often blurt it out before he even knows he’s talking.
Once a child has mastered the word “me,” I try to elicit “see” using the same strategy of reading the book until a child becomes familiar with the word and anticipates it. I use my facial expressions, my body language, pacing my voice so that it primes his little pump to talk, and then the PREGNANT PAUSE, where he fills in the word. I don’t have a great clip of this to post today, but I’m going to do one soon just so you can see this SUPER SUCCESSFUL strategy.
This also has been the book I use most often when I’m working on teaching the vowel sound “eee.” Vowel sound errors are common in apraxia, a motor speech sound disorder. For more information about apraxia, check out my DVD Teach Me To Talk with Apraxia and Phonological Disorders.
While there are DOZENS of other books I like, these books are the ones I use over and over and over because they work!!
The books and the activities I’ve shared have been the most successful for me during therapy sessions AND, more importantly, in helping (moms and dads) know how to work on language when I’m not there!
Get the books.
Copy the activities.
HAVE SOME FUN!
Until next time…