How To Prompt a Child to Talk by Initiating

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This week I’ve fielded the same question from a few families and therapists who have emailed me about how to prompt a child to talk.

They’ve asked about kids who can talk, but don’t initiate to begin conversations with other people. Many times these kids don’t ask questions, and sometimes, they don’t request very many things either.

Not requesting is significant because it’s HIGHLY unusual for a toddler, even those with only a few words.

They talk, but what they say is imitative or in response to someone else.

Remember that initiating means that a child takes the lead in an interaction or conversation. Initiating is important for language development because none of us can depend on other people to read our minds! We have to be able to ask for what we need.

Initiation is so important for language development that it’s actually included in one of the 11 skills all toddlers master before words emerge. (Read more about these skills in my therapy manual Let’s Talk About Talking.)

Before a late talker truly begins to initiate (meaning completely on his own), we can help him begin that process by the cues or specific prompt we use to help a child talk.

If you’ve read my emails for a while, you know I’m a list gal!

Here’s a quick and easy summary of the kinds of cues that “work” to prompt a child to talk and use words on his own:

How To Prompt a Child to Talk

Wait to give a child time to initiate. Many times we jump right in there to talk too soon! If we wait a little bit, a toddler may surprise us with her own words! Hold back for at least a few seconds before you begin to talk yourself. That can be so hard for us sometimes! (Read more about the power of waiting .)

Create interest and motivation with an expectant pause. This means that you’ll use body language to “look” like you know a child is about to initiate. An SLP who was a guest on my podcast once called this your “Tell me face!” I love that! Lean forward with wide eyes, an open mouth, and maybe even gasp a little as if to say, “I know you’re going to talk…”

Add even more body language. Shrug your shoulders as if to say “What?” Or even use a hand motion to gesture to what you think the child wants or to display options. By doing this, you’re giving a visual cue without using any words yet. Again… silence can be a powerful motivator for a late talker.

Begin with a leading, but non-specific statement or question. My favorite thing is to say, “Hmmmm….” like I’m thinking. Lots of my little friends begin to imitate this. (It’s even cuter when you add a gesture like tapping your chin with your finger.) You could be a little more direct and say something like, “Now what?” or “What should we do now?”

If there’s still no response, move on to more direct cues. Try:

Requesting a response. Say to the child “Tell me what you want” or “You have to ask.” Here you’re not modeling what he should say, but you are clear that you expect him to try to tell you on his own.

Try a carrier phrase to get him started. Say “I want a…” and then pause to let him complete the sentence.

Some kids need a bigger hint with a phonemic cue. In everyday language that means the first sound of the word. For example, if a child wants to ask for milk, say, “I want mmm…”

If all else fails, model the word for him to imitate. It’s not initiation because you’re telling him what to say, but it is imitation, another key skill for late talkers to master! Kids have to hear words for a long, long time before they begin to try to say them.

Don’t feel like a failure if a child doesn’t begin to pop out words on his own right away. All talking begins with imitating and it’s “good enough” for many of our little friends for a while! (For more information about how to teach a child to imitate, check out my book Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers.)

Beyond cues, there are lots and lots of other ideas for teaching a toddler to initiate. Environmental sabotage or creating opportunities for a child to ask for things is my #1 strategy for helping a toddler master initiation and teaching a parent to prompt a child to talk. Read more about that A Little Frustration Can Go A Long Way. If you’d like more how-to instructions and ideas, there’s a whole chapter about initiating in my book Let’s Talk About Talking.




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Happy Therapists, Teachers, Parents & Children

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your generosity in sharing so much knowledge in such a clear and enthusiastic way.

As a retired audiologist with a fabulous and language delayed grandson, I used your podcasts and outstanding publication, The Autism Workbook, to inspire and guide me over the past year.

It works!! He went from barely verbal, no gestures, didn't respond to his name etc etc to a verbal, social, curious, ready to imitate anything, fill in the blanks on familiar "set" speech, generate his own totally appropriate and mostly understandable sentences...not just short phrases anymore... full little paragraphs...about imaginary things, what he did during the day, what he wants. True communication!

You make a powerful difference in this world! ❤

With gratitude,

"Laura Mize, you are a Godsend. I don’t know how one human can have so many helpful things to say in a beautifully organized way, so often. Always amazes me when another super helpful email comes from you, and for free. With free YouTube videos and cheap CEUs. THANK YOU!!!"

Sheila, Canada

"I purchased the book on autism and have watched the #400s series podcasts. Laura Mize has been more effective in teaching autistic tendencies, than many professors, shadowing professions, and the 100s of books, articles and classes or videos, or live workshop speakers, have been at teaching effective practices for a child with ASD. Some of the many lessons she has taught, which I will now use, to be a more effective Interventionist, include but are not limited to: red flags, typical behaviors, self-stimulating behaviors, not taking away toys, rather showing child to play with toy appropriately. She gives examples of child's actions, "inappropriate," explains the reason for: why the child is engaging in these behaviors and how they can be replaced with more appropriate, effective fuctional and age-appropriate skills."

"I’m sure Laura gets these messages all the time, but I thought I’d share. I stumbled across Laura‘s "Autism or Speech Delay?" YouTube video when I really needed it. This video finally listed and explained some of the red flags my son was showing for autism. I share the link anytime a parent is questioning in my FB autism group. This mother I don’t even know said Laura's video changed her life. I know exactly how she feels because It changed families too. Thank you to everyone at Teach Me To Talk."


"Good Morning Laura,
I received your book (The Autism Workbook) yesterday and it is absolutely amazing! As I evaluate young children (0-3) for developmental delays and write plans for them with their parents, there are a ton of ideas that are ready to use. Others that reinforce what I have been doing, and saying, all along. Thank you so, so much for writing this incredible book and pulling everything together in one place!"


"Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge, experience, and guidance.
I’m a parent who bought the autism workbook and it’s the only clear resource I found to make a change in my son. I’m really thankful to Ms. Laura for helping out people like us all over the world."

"Laura Mize, all I have to say is that ALL YOUR STRATEGIES WORK."

ANNE, YouTube viewer

"We have 7 SLPs in our preschool (public) program for special needs children (ages 3-5) and we use your courses, books, and techniques every day! :-) We have seen our preschoolers make such great gains!"


"I just received Teach Me to Play With You, and it is ALREADY WORKING! WOW!

Girl…my son is 3 years old, and he NEVER asks for something using words. We were playing “Get Your Belly” (from Teach Me to Play WITH You), and after several times, he laughed and screamed "BEWIEEE!!!"  It was a hoot. And I can't believe he said it! I have played with him like this before, but this time I took your advice and acted CRAZY!! I will act like a total lunatic if it will get him to talk to me!  Now I can give him "the look" from across the room, and he will say it. That manual is so amazingly practical, and it is a GODSEND right now! Thank you SO MUCH!”

"I wanted to send you a quick email to say thank you. I started watching your videos/podcasts about 4 months ago. My son has gone from losing words he previously used, only having about 7 words at his 2 year check up in August (assessed at a blended 10 month language level) -- to now having so many words, increased social engagement, following commands, spontaneously requesting things, and naming letters & numbers (not in order) as well as colors. We had our monthly meeting with our SLP through the state infants & toddlers program and it felt like we were just bragging the whole time, but I knew in the back of my head it was because I have been using strategies you taught me.

We still have so much work to do with our sweet boy, but I know in my heart he would not have succeeded without the education you provided. I will continue to read your emails & watch videos as we go along this journey and face challenges, but credit is due to you, Laura.

Thank you so much, endlessly."


"I just want to tell how fortunate I feel to have found your website and you!! I became a special instructor in EI almost a year ago and I started with hardly any applicable training. I felt so lost and confused as how to help the kids I work with learn how to use words and play. Honestly, I didn't even understand the importance of play, although I always played with my kids. But, once I started to watch your podcasts and get some of your manuals I felt a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and that I could finally teach these kids and their families something of value from a real therapist and based on research!. Thank you so much for seeing the need to help other EI service providers and providing a forum to share your knowledge and years of valuable experience. I'm sure you get a lot of these emails every week if not every day, but I wanted to make I could add to those notes of gratitude!! THANK YOU again!!"


"Just wanted to say a HUGE thank you for these emails and your books, I have them all and they have seriously saved and improved my sessions with my kiddos. Huge thank you."


"I was very frustrated with how speech therapy was going for my child. I would take him and drop him off and not hear much of anything from his therapist and teachers other than, "He had a good (or a bad!) day." Your materials were invaluable for us because I learned how to work with him on his speech. I learned how to teach him to talk and play. I learned how to pay attention to his cues and work with him to teach him to communicate. Without it, I have no doubt he still wouldn’t talk."


"Hi! I just wanted to say (from an SLT perspective) how incredibly useful I am finding absolutely all of your articles, blogs and resources - I only discovered your site last month and have just received all your books which I feel I am learning more than on my entire university training course!! But also the way in which you give specific, realistic, fun, encouraging ideas for working with parents is really just fantastic, I only wish I have your site sooner! Thanks so much from the UK! Kind regards."


"I just wanted to reach out to say thank you for making things a little easier to manage for me this year. I made the transition from school SLP to private therapist about a year ago. While the change was welcome, it was a lot, and I was just getting my footing in the clinic when I began teletherapy full time. Your website has been a huge lifeline in helping me work with late talkers and coach their parents in an accessible but effective way, even remotely. I look forward to getting your emails each week. I am floored by the amount of valuable, free information that your website provides, and I’m looking forward to investing in your workbooks soon. A sincere thank you for all you do!"


"You are an inspiration! I am truly grateful for the way you put into words and writing how to do what we do as SLPs. At this time in my 13 years of practicing, I find your encouragement keeps me going. As a single mom, I find it a stretch to buy materials these days and I am so thankful for the freebies you so generously share that help me teach my families. I don’t have much time to put together lists or quick references for parents!! Much gratitude!!"


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