Communicating with our children begins from the minute they are born. In turn, infants do the same when they convey to us they are hungry, uncomfortable or want to be rocked.
As a Consultant Speech and Language Pathologist, I have to often remind parents that attention spent on a child’s physical growth should, in fact must, be equal to the attention spent towards developing communication skills in young children. Although developing a young child’s communication skills is often taken for granted, ideas on how to nurture children’s speech and language development in typically developing children are always welcome.
A salient point to remember when communicating with your child is to always connect first. Pause and establish a reference point: a shared gaze or a touch. Look at your child’s face as often as possible and establish - and maintain -eye contact. This models the behavior that it is appropriate to look at people during communication exchanges. By looking at you, your child will also learn about facial expressions and watching the way you move your mouth will later contribute to your child’s articulatory skills. Pay attention to whatever your child is attending to and establish a mutual interest. Follow your child’s lead. This can be done by looking at it, listening to it, manipulating it, talking about it, demonstrating how it works etc. You can use any situation that presents itself within your child’s everyday routine. For example: listening to music, looking at a mirror, watching T.V, playing with toys etc. Remember to pronounce your words clearly when communicating with your child. Speak slowly and remember to look directly at your child’s face during communication.
When you talk to and/or play with your child, do ensure that there are pauses for your child to fill. Such pauses are not only for your child to contribute words but even an action is welcome. Use related language, for example, ‘it’s your turn’, or ‘Mama/Papa’s turn’, may be incorporated into the sequence of the game. This introduces the child to the art of ‘turn taking’.
Give your children space during communication attempts even when you know what they want. Give them time to form their ideas and then to put these ideas into words to meet their needs. If you meet your child’s needs instantly there would be no need to communicate in the first place!
Create and incorporate choices in your child’s life and encourage expression of these choices by pointing, vocalizing or even using words. The confidence gained by young children when they begin expressing their own choices is building blocks for further exploration of expressive language development later on.
Incorporate instructions into your daily routines with your child. Start with simple requests that only involve one idea like “kiss”. Then, build on this and increase the level of difficulty - “touch your nose” and so on.
The importance of reading to your child cannot be emphasized enough. Read simple books with one or two pictures on each page to your child. Ask questions that can be answered either verbally or by pointing. It is important to make certain that you do not pressurize the child to respond as communication needs to be pleasurable. If your child does not respond after about 10-15 seconds, model the answer for him/her with a positive tone of voice and a supporting smile. For example, if the child does not point to the bird in the picture, you can say “I see the bird sitting on the tree”, while pointing to it at the same time.
Reinforce and demonstrate: If your child is trying to say a word but is not articulating it clearly, praise the attempt and acknowledge that you understand and then model the target word you think was meant to be said, “Oh, you want an Apple!”
Explore– there are umpteen opportunities to model vocabulary within daily routines and even more when you consider the social environment surrounding your child. A trip to the market, or the pet shop, can be very stimulating when used in the right way. Positive daily interactions are invaluable to the development of speech and language skills.
‘Expansion’ is the technique of expanding or reformulating the child's utterance into an adult-like form, either in terms of sentence structure (grammatically)or with request to the meaning. For example, if a child says “car”, the adult can say, “Yes, Daddy’s car” or “Yes, it’s a blue car”. This technique provides the child with greater accuracy grammatically and/or meaning-wise and allows the child to be more readily understood by the listener. By expanding the child's utterances to an adult-like form, the mother shows the child how to get his specific message across more effectively and the mother/adult can also determine what the child intended to say. Through this technique, mothers verbally interact with their children.
Encourage your child to associate the object that produces the sound with its’ corresponding sound. Try and emphasize the production of vowel sounds that can be easily ‘seen’ where possible i.e. /ah/, /ee/, /u/ etc. Matching animals to the sounds that they produce is a good example of this. Matching environmental sounds with the sounds they produce i.e. sound of running water. While it is important to remember that sounds develop over time and that some sounds do not develop until a child is 4 or 5 years of age, it is also important to keep a tab on sound development in comparison to the development of your child’s peers.
Try to keep an eye on others when they communicate with your child and note their level of understanding of what your child is saying. As parents you understand your child better than an outsider would.
Taking time to put these tips into action offers you a thoughtful approach as you interact with your amazing little communicator.
Jennifer Peters-Lee is a Consultant Speech-Language Pathologist who has made meaningful communication, her life’s work.
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