“This” and “That” Kids…Strategies for Reducing Non-Specific Vocabulary in Late Talkers

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Reducing Non-Specific Vocabulary in Late Talkers

Yesterday I received this email from an SLP who asked a question that’s very common for those of us who work with late talkers. I thought I’d share my response in case you need these tips too!

“What are your best strategies for “this” and “that” kiddos? I have a couple kids on my EI caseload right now who request and label using generic terms like this, that, and these. I’ve modeled the target words many times, and encouraged imitation, but we’re just not having much success yet.”

I’ve encountered this issue over and over in my caseload too! Here’s what I do when I have little friends that are stuck on saying “this” and “that.”

Look at Receptive Language

Many times we look at a child’s expressive language issues (what a child says) without considering receptive language (what a child understands).

Start with ruling out any receptive issues. Many times receptive language delays are very subtle. You end up thinking a kid understands much more than he truly does!  During sessions work on following directions with specific labels to make sure a late talker understands the vocabulary he hears.

Note any gaps in a child’s ability to follow commands and try to tease out the specific problem. Is there an overall problem with language comprehension or is it more definitive? Do you need to teach a child less familiar nouns (labels)?

If that’s the case, you probably need to go beyond those nouns and take a closer look at other word classes too. Does he also need help with verbs (actions words)? Can she differentiate prepositions (location words) such as in vs. out on vs. off?

Analyze What a Child Hears

Analyze the language models a child hears.  Many times adults speak using very general language such as “Give it here” instead of “Give me your cup” or “Do you want that?” instead of “Do you want apple juice?” Talk with a child’s parents (and other primary language models – teachers, grandparents, whoever you have access to see & educate!) about being SUPER SPECIFIC as they talk to a child avoiding non-specific pronouns like “this” and “that.” This process is harder than most people think!!

A Practical (But Sneaky!) Strategy

Pretend to misunderstand when a child says “this” and “that” giving them what they don’t want several times in a row. After a few misses on your part, then say something like, “Oh… you want ___. You have to tell me ____.” Hold out as long as you can for imitation of the specific label, without making a toddler too frustrated, of course!

Try Non-preferred Choices to Teach Decrease Non-specific Vocabulary

This last strategy is tricky to implement, but effective. Set up some clever choices when you’re asking them to choose things they call “this” or “that” by the specific label contrasted with another non-preferred choice you label as “this.”

For example, if they call a truck “this,” call the truck “truck” in your choice and another non-preferred toy “this” to see if they default to “this,” even when they obviously want the truck. Here’s how this looks in practice: you would ask, “Do you want the truck (which he previously labeled “this”) or this (offer another toy you are pretty sure he will decline)?”

If he defaults and says “This,” and then gets upset when you give the non-preferred choice, you’ll help him make the association with the correct label.

Food choices generally work best for this strategy because it may be easier to know what he definitively likes and doesn’t like.

If food items are impractical or won’t work because the child is a picky eater, select ANYTHING you KNOW he hates for the non-preferred choice. Call it “this” or “that” when you’re offering your choices so that he learns to use the correct label or he risks being misunderstood.

Remember too that older children who have difficulty with word finding (which is what this problems really is!) probably learned to over-use pronouns and non-specific vocabulary as toddlers. It’s up to us to address this issue NOW for our little friends to be sure that word finding doesn’t continue to plague them as they grow up!

More Ideas

Do you need more strategies for helping a late talker child learn to use more words? Read my best Tried and True Strategies.



Do you have a question you’d like to see me tackle? I’d love to hear it! Email those to me at Laura@teachmetotalk.com with QUESTION in the subject line.

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1 Comment

  1. nicole gedraitis on March 23, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Love this!!! I had a child like this about a year ago, and then the parents self-discharged against my advice. Two weeks ago, I had a new evaluation..hmmm..same child…still not talking 🙂

    I also want to let you know, that I have a lot of students do their clinicals with me, and whenever we have down time, I have them read your receptive/expressive language manual. They are always so thankful I provided them with that and enjoy the plethora of therapy strategies they receive. It’s a manual that I really believe should be used in the early child language development course in graduate school.

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