Child Not Talking? Teach a Child to Imitate
Learning to imitate sounds and words is a critical skill in a child’s quest to become verbal. Many children who are late talkers, those who have more specific language delays/disorders such as apraxia or autism, have great difficulty learning to repeat words. When toddlers don’t begin to say words on time, one of the first things we should look at is how well he imitates. Turns out, for many late talkers, once we teach a child to imitate, they begin to repeat words often, and then finally, they begin to use words on their own.
Imitating is how EVERY child learns to talk.
How to Teach a Child to Imitate
Teaching a child to imitate words often begins with teaching him HOW to imitate.
Sometimes it’s easier to teach a child to imitate by starting with movements of your body rather than with words or even sounds. You can begin by modeling easy movements you know he can do such as banging on his high chair tray, smacking at a window when he’s looking outside or clapping. If your child is already waving bye-bye or playing interactive games such as Peek-a-Boo or So Big, he already knows how to do this since “copying” you is how he’s learned the game in the first place. If you need more help with remembering how to play these kinds of games, check out my manual Teach Me To Play WITH You.
For kids who don’t catch on and try to repeat what you’ve done, I always back up and start to imitate their movements. Pick a time when your child is in a happy, playful mood to do this. It might also help to be in a confined space, such as inside a playhouse or under a blanket or table, so that her attention is focused on you. Wait until she does something, and repeat her movement. Stare back at her expectantly and wait for her to do it again. If she doesn’t, wait for her next big movement, then try again. When she notices and repeats the same or another movement, copy her again. Make this a game over the next several days or weeks so she expects you to imitate her. I also try to not to talk too much during these interactions so that the focus is on imitation, not on what I’ve said. Too much talking takes the focus off imitating, and this is the skill you need to teach. If I talk at all during this kind of exchange, it’s usually to say a funny novel word such as Bang, Bang, Bang or making a silly noise.
Once your child understands this game, try to take the lead by initiating movements you’ve seen her do in your last few play sessions. If she doesn’t do this on her own, try to take her hands and gently perform the action after you’ve done it. Some of these are performed with your mouth (blowing, fake coughing/sneezing, smacking, etc..) so they are particularly useful for helping kids move toward imitating vocally.
Additional ideas for other movements to teach a child to imitate –
Touching various body parts
Shaking his head
Opening & closing your mouth
Clicking your tongue
Give me 5
Touching the floor
Holding arms up
Patting your head
Moving on to Imitating Sounds
When your child can imitate these movements pretty well, but still doesn’t seem to be able to make the leap to imitating words, I add silly sounds to the imitation games to accompany movements he can already imitate. For example, when I’m clapping, I say, “Yay!” If I shake my head, I say, “No, no, no” (in a silly, playful way), or I might add “sound effects” with popping my lips, or saying, “Do Do Do” as a I jump up and down. One silly sound that works well is saying, “Mmmmmm” when you’re eating a yummy snack. I add a little side-to-side shoulder action as I model this one to give them a motor movement to copy. These silly words, often called Exclamatory Words, are often among the first words that babies try to repeat and say on their own. Try some of the following:
Other Exclamatory Words
uh-oh, oops, whee, wow, ouch, oh, Oh man!, Oh no!, yuck, icky, yum-yum, boo, an audible inhalation or exhalation (think a surprised noise)
Fun With Noises
Some children are able to produce animal sounds before they begin to imitate words. I try these often during play with a farm set. A good first one to try is panting like a dog. I particularly do this if I know the child can imitate opening his mouth. Don’t forget other animal sounds like a bark, meow, neigh, oink, quack, moo, baa, roar, ssss for a snake, etc… I sometimes ask a child, “What does the ____ say?” before I do it, but most of the time, I grab the animal, hold it up by my face as if I’m pretending to be the animal, and model the sound. Exaggerate your facial expressions too. This nearly always generates a laugh, even if I don’t get them to try to repeat the animal sound just yet. Model the sound in play with the animals and barn too, but holding the toy animal by your face while you emphasize the sound and darn near make a fool out of yourself works really well! If they don’t try to imitate this, I might hold it next to their mouths and say, “You do it. You’re the ____!” If you need to take the pressure off of vocalizing, pretend to kiss the animal using an exaggerated smacking sound, then have them try. This also works well with puzzle pieces using animals. Don’t forget zoo animals either, but you may have to be more creative with their noises.
I also try noises to accompany whatever action we’re using in play with the farm animals or even dolls. Have them eat, drink (I do a loud slurpy noise), and everyone’s favorite, snore. When characters walk I either say, “Walk Walk Walk” or “Up Up Up” as they climb. You might also try to model a new consonant sound that they can’t usually produce in a word attempt. My friend who is a DI uses a little chant, “Doo dee doo dee doo” when characters walk, and she’s gotten several children to produce a /d/ in this context when I haven’t been able to get it in a real word. Other sounds I use routinely in play include fake crying, sneezing, laughing, yawning, and shivering for cold or scared.
I always play using vehicle noises. Don’t forget about vroom, zoom, boom, crash, honk-honk, beep-beep, choo-choo (or woo woo), siren noises, etc…. Try these in the middle of play. One of my favorites to do is to get the vehicle stuck when I model “stuuuuuuuuck” and then make lots of effortful noise while I try to pull the vehicle out. Again try the by the face method, especially for the honk, beep, choo-choo, etc… I also do these with puzzle pieces of vehicles if a kid is too “busy” with a toy vehicle to notice all of my vocal efforts during play.
Another good thing to try is having a child vocalize into a bucket or can since this produces an echo-like noise. I had one little girl with Down syndrome who would not imitate any sound or word unless we first tried it this way. Babbling syllables is a good way to start with this. Try to use the same sounds you know your baby can do such as mamamama, bububububu, or dadadadada. If you can’t get a babble with consonant and vowel syllables, start with vowel sounds such as “ah,” “uh,” or “oh.” Then I move to vowels that sound like words like “i” for “Hi” or “ay” for “Hey.”
If a child is pretty quiet and I don’t hear much noise at all during play, my goal is always to make him noisy, even before we begin to work on words. One thing I try to is to imitate any noise he happens to make whether it’s accidental or on purpose. Tickling or chasing is a good way to elicit squeals or laughter, then I make a big deal out of matching the child’s laugh or squeal with mine aiming for the same sounds, length, volume, and pitch as him.
If you’d like more information about how to teach a child to imitate, I can help you! Get my book Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers. You’ll learn the 8 levels of imitation necessary for helping a late talker learn to imitate and talk!!
Here’s a video about teaching a child to imitate with toys.
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