Teaching Toddlers to Use the Words They Know to Change Their Worlds
“How many words can your baby say?” To the parent of a late talker, this seemingly innocent question is the most hurtful thing anyone could ask. New parents are often on a quest to see whose baby “knows” the most.
Many times expressive language is equated with intelligence. As a parent of a late talker, you likely know that this is not true since many children who are late talkers are quite intelligent. Sometimes more so than their chatty friends, but they don’t get credit for it, and especially not from the parents of the chatterboxes in your circle of friends.
As a speech-language pathologist, it’s not the number of words a child says that tells me how “smart” they are or how well they are communicating. (I am using the word “smart” only because this is the word most parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors use.) It’s how they use the words they have. Let me give you an example.
About two years ago, I was met at the door by an adorable 28 month old little girl I was set to evaluate. When her father let me in, she looked right past me, threw both arms into the air, and began to belt out a perfectly articulated, “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Laura. Happy birthday to you.” Without another word she ran away from the entry hall, through the den, and into the kitchen where she wanted to look at herself in the reflection of the stove.
When I called her name many times to cajole her into playing with me, she leaned into the stove to get a better look. Without warning she blew right past me and then began to sing, “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family….” Her song trailed off as she caught a glimpse of the TV. Mesmerized she stopped in her tracks, her attention fixated to the commercial. When she didn’t respond to her father’s attempts to gain her attention, he turned off the television. She launched into a meltdown and screamed and cried until he, in an embarrassed and exasperated state, walked over to pick her up. She grabbed his hand and pulled him back over to the TV.
Even though this little girl sang two entire songs perfectly that might be a challenge for many two-year-olds, she did not know how to ask for things she needed using words (including the “TV” that she so desperately wanted), call her parents when she needed help, or protest using words when a peer took a toy away (or when her father turned the set off.) Although she could label more than one hundred pictures, identify all her letters, numbers, and colors, and quote scenes from her favorite television shows, she couldn’t make a choice between what she wanted for dinner or answer a question like, “What happened,” when she was clearly upset about something.
For this little girl, and for any other child, it’s not about vocabulary size; it’s about learning to use the words you know to change your world. Speech-language pathologists call this “pragmatic” language.
Let me give you another example.
A few months ago, I met a darling little boy who was 16 months old. His mother, finishing her residency in pediatrics, was quite concerned because he was silent. No words. No babbling. Barely a peep beyond crying or laughing. However, as I watched him interact with both of his parents, he initiated interaction with them many times with eye contact, walked to his mother and held his arms up to be picked up, and then pointed when he wanted his sippy cup off the table. He laughed and with “twinkly” eyes looked back and forth between all 3 adults while we played with several different toys in a 30 minute time span. He shook his head “no” when his mother asked him if he wanted more to drink. He pushed my hands away when I tried to help him learn the sign for more. What communication! What intent! But not with one word! (By the way -Five months later he’s talking a blue streak!)
The little boy in the previous example clearly demonstrated several types of “pragmatic” language, but all with gestures. In my world, that “spoke” volumes more than the little girl who could sing entire songs, name all the letters, and quote Dora perfectly.
By the time most children are 3, they learn to use words to accomplish the following purposes:
-To call/get attention
-To express feelings
-To ask questions
-To comment on what isn’t seen
We need to be sure that we are helping our children who are late talkers also accomplish the same purposes or “speech acts” with or without words. How can we do this? I’ll give you some examples.
If your child can label “car” when he sees his toy, have him respond to to a question when he sees a picture of a car in a book when you ask, “What’s that?”? Have him request “car” when you hold it away from him teasingly and ask, “What do you want?”
If your child can imitate the word “Dada,” have him practice calling “Dada” as you play a game with him waiting for Daddy to come home, or better yet, when Dad is hiding behind the door and can pop out once your little one has called him. When Daddy is hiding, ask “Dada? Where’s Dada?” emphasizing the rising tone of your voice to indicate that you asked a question.
If your child can use a word in one context, think about how you can get him to use the same word in a different context and expand his communicative intent.
If your child is nonverbal, work on using gestures to accomplish these same purposes. Use pointing to request by having him show you what he wants. He can use pointing to respond to questions you ask such as, “Where’s the ball?” He can use a head shake “no” or turn away in protest (a much more desirable than a fit!). He can wave to close before he says, “bye bye.” Model holding out your hands to ask, “Where” before he can imitate the word or ask questions.
Don’t forget how important facial expressions are in communication. I have seen many of my little clients learn to use their faces so well to communicate with others. Make your face match your words. “Fake” cry for sad and hold your hands up in front of your eyes to gesture crying. Clap your hands, smile, and say,”Yay” for “happy.” Make a surprised face and use an exclamatory word such as, “Wow” to help describe things you see. Use an inquisitive look just before and while you’re asking questions.
Even if your child has “hit a wall” and isn’t adding new words or signs, working on his pragmatic skills, or why he communicates is a great way to expand what he’s learning and the best way to continue to work on language skills. Most of the time, it’s not the size of the vocabulary that really counts. It’s HOW they learn to use words to control their worlds. Focus on communication, especially when the words aren’t coming yet. This will reduce frustration for everyone, including you!