Tried and True Methods for Helping a Late Talker Use More Words

potatoe head

Tried and True Methods for Helping a Late Talker Use More Words

Today I received an email from an SLP who asked me this question:

“How can I get a child on my caseload who can talk to say more words during a session? He likes me. He likes toys. He’s in a good mood most of the time, but I still can’t get him to use many words, even though he’s a pretty decent imitator.”

Instead of reinventing the wheel for my answer, I replied to her with sections I copied and pasted directly from my book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual. These tips are so useful I want to pass them along to you too!

The best way to dramatically increase the number of words a child uses is by offering choices. Although this is still usually an imitative task since you’re providing a model by asking, “Do you want ____ or ____,” you’ll still significantly increase the number of words a child says in a shorter amount of time.

Don’t just offer a choice to select each activity in sessions, but keep the choices going throughout the play routine. For example, give a child a choice between playing Potato Heads or a puzzle. Once he imitates the word to select his toy, continue asking for every step of play by saying,

“Should we close or open the bag?”

Then ask,

“Who will unzip it, you or me?”                                                                                           

Then as you take out the Potato Head, ask the child where to put it down saying,

“Where do we put it, up or down?”                                                                                               

“Here or there?”

Then offer the pieces one by one by asking,

“Do you want shoes or hat?”                                                                                            

“What’s next – eyes or nose?”                                                                                         

“Teeth or arm?

Continue with every single piece until Mr. Potato Head is assembled.

Once you’ve admired your finished product, give a child some initial practice with any of the receptive language concepts you’re targeting with Mr. Potato Head. If you’re working on understanding action words, let the child use Mr. Potato Head to demonstrate action words after you’ve given him the choice offering,

“Should he walk or run?”                                                                                                               

“Fall or jump?”                                                                                                                   

“Will he laugh or cry?”

If a child doesn’t participate, keep him interested by being silly as you hold Mr. Potato Head and exaggerate each action.

Your goal here is to offer choices in a fast-paced way to keep him imitating and talking. It’s not unusual for me to elicit 25 or more different words within a single play activity using this technique. When you facilitate constant conversation like this, you’re building a habit of using words consistently and frequently. Again, this usually has to happen with imitation before it’s spontaneous.

The main reason choices are so powerful is that it gives a two-year-old the illusion of control within a session. You’re honoring what he says. If he chooses an activity, he gets to do it. The kicker is you can’t offer anything that’s not an acceptable option. Remind parents of this important strategy. Sometimes during a session when a child is having an off-day or is misbehaving a mom might ask him, “Do you want to play with Laura, or do you want her to go home?” I interrupt her only to say, “If he says Go home, then I’m out of here!” Teach parents that they should never give a choice when they can’t live with the outcome.

Another pointer for parents is to teach them to offer the choice they really want the child to pick as the last option. A child at this developmental phase often just echoes the last thing he hears. Later you’ll probably want to help him learn to listen carefully to both choices and say the one he really wants. Children with echolalia will struggle with this for a while, and for them, you’ll need to use a non-preferred option as the last choice so that they purposefully choose rather than imitate rotely. However, at this phase of development, an adult can use word placement to steer a toddler. A really smart toddler may catch on and trip up an unsuspecting adult despite our efforts. I just love it when that happens! The child has finally learned that words have power!

Teach parents to offer choices all day long at home. Most of the time, moms and dads have to watch this strategy multiple times, week after week, before they can get anywhere near the number of words that a skilled therapist can elicit with one activity. If you or parents aren’t as successful and need to see this technique in action, watch several examples on my DVD Teach Me To Talk in the section on Choices.

Another powerful way to increase the words a child uses is by creating opportunities for a child to ask for what he wants. This is referred to as Communication Temptations or Environmental Sabotage. Set up situations so that a child is more likely to ask for the object or event he wants. Some parents think of this as “playing dumb.” Begin a familiar activity, but don’t give the child everything he needs to complete the task. For example,

  • Put him in the bathtub, but don’t run the water until he asks.
  • Put on only one sock and shoe leaving the other foot bare so that a child is prompted to ask for the other sock and shoe.
  • Eat his favorite food in front of him or give his siblings a snack, and wait for him to ask for a bite.
  • Give him an empty cup with nothing to drink to prompt his request.
  • Play with his favorite toy, and don’t share until he asks, or store that toy out of reach so that he’ll have to ask to get it down to play.
  • Place his toys or favorite foods in clear containers so that he will have to ask for help to open the container.
  • Introduce a wind-up toy since a child won’t be able to activate it alone.

Carefully consider the existing words in a child’s vocabulary before you orchestrate these tasks. The chief requirement is that a child must already be able to say the word you’re trying to elicit. If he’s never before said “juice,” he’s probably not going to be able to pop out “juice” for the very first time during this type of situation. A brand new talker will need to imitate the word for a while before he’s able to use the word spontaneously to request an item or event. Use withholding to encourage imitation on request. Once he consistently uses a word during withholding, move the word to this kind of activity to increase spontaneous use. If the child also exhibits a receptive language delay, be sure you’re helping him understand the new word first, before you expect him to say it.

Hope those ideas help you help a late talker you know!

Until next time –



If you like this kind of advice, get the entire copy of Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual for yourself!

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  1. Mona sallam on April 20, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Thank you great tips. I am very grateful

  2. sharon nielson on April 21, 2016 at 7:43 am

    MY grand daughter does all of the above. She just wont talk If I ask her do you want milk or juice she nods yes. she will bring a book to me and she turns the pages and makes sounds of dog, not words she knows when you say where is the dog horse cat etc. she has concurred mama dada hi waves when someone leaves her hearing is alright we have her in a therapy program.I do not want to have to sign.

  3. Letty benton on April 22, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    I love listening to your postcast.
    Watching your videos on you tube and just reading all the Info on your emails.
    I have a daughter she’s 26 months old. And she’s barely talking. She has maybe 30 words in her vocabulary and she’s now losing the last letter to the words. Like mom she now says mo.
    There’s a speech therapist that works with her once a week. (For the past 2 months) and every time she’s here she talks to me but I don’t feel like she’s actually working with my daughter. She told me she needs my daughter to “warm up to her first”
    How do I go bout this situation. She’s really nice but I don’t care to hear bout other kids. I want her to help me help my daughter.!

    Please help.

  4. Tiffany on May 8, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Hi Laura. What if your 28 mo old boy is not talking at all. No words. Mom and dad only occasionally and randomly. We just started therapy , I know it’s super early but he just gets very upset if I don’t let him just grab one of the choices.

    Thanks for any and all help

  5. Annie Frances on May 10, 2016 at 8:19 am

    My son has the same problem now, where he doesn’t say much even though he can. We put him in speech therapy because he also doesn’t speak super clearly yet. I like your suggestion to continuously ask questions that he has to respond to. I will talk to his speech therapist and hopefully see results soon. Thanks.

  6. Joy on June 13, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    Question for Laura


    My 21 month old says 2 words consistently (mama/ma/mom and da/dada) and has a few animal sounds (awawawa for “woof”, a nasally sound for an elephant, “sss” for a snake). Do animal sounds count as words? The above are the only consonant sounds I hear (m, d, s, w). She is not a big babbler, but is very smart and communicative in other ways. When she wants something she will gesture or repeat “ma” (to get my attention) and then “mmm” or “uh” until I figure out what she wants. If I ask her a yes/no question she uses the same filler sound (uh or mmm – interchangeablely, I don’t think one is “yes” and the other is “no”), and I have to repeat myself asking her to nod yes or no to figure out what she wants.

    She does not like to imitate, but will occasionally try if it begins with m, d, s, or w. I often give her opportunities for a verbal response , imitate her vocal play and try to expand on it, and am playful in my approach. She also has said a few words once or twice with clear intent and then not again.

    Should I be concerned or can this be typical for a late talker? My dr was not concerned, but how she is with sounds makes me wonder if there is cause for concern.

    Thank you!

  7. Latrina Pope on June 15, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    Extremely helpful. I really appreciate your practical and actionable guidance. Getting my child to use words more has been a very frustrating and humbling exercise. I am bookmarking your website for continued reference!

  8. Erica on July 20, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    i love your site! your tips are really good…however i have a question regarding those of us working in early intervention 0-3years programs. since i see kids in their homes or daycares and we aren’t supposed to bring in toys or items for use… you have any good recs for helping with making choices and increasing requests? i feel like so many of the kids i see have their stuff out everywhere. and it’s often hard to keep attention to one item as they want to hop from item to item. and just seem overstimulated by their environment. then i feel like if i do pull aside couple things to have them make a choice they go back to say “cars” that are out & that is their preferred toy to play with. thanks, erica

  9. Erica on July 20, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    do you have suggestions for those of us working with first steps and seeing kids in home/daycare settings? we aren’t supposed to take toys with us, however i often find it frustrating that all their stuff is out and it’s hard to pull them away from preferred toys and objects if i select 2 things to have them choose. they often want nothing to do with what i select for choices but yet maybe have 1 thing if that they really are drawn to. i think it’s hard to change their environment and often feel they have to be overstimulated by all the stuff that is out! thanks, erica

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