Parents don’t even realize they’re doing it, but every time they talk in the presence of their babies and toddlers, they are teaching language. From infancy, little ones are listening to parents’ voices and to the sounds adults make, beginning to familiarize themselves with the speech sounds that make up their native language. As they approach a year, babies begin to babble, play around with the sounds of language, and form their first words. Often a “language burst” or explosion happens during the second year, in which toddlers rapidly acquire words – first to their receptive vocabulary (words that they understand) and then to their expressive vocabulary as they start to use the words themselves.
Some children, of course, follow their own developmental trajectory and acquire language more slowly. For both typically-developing children and those struggling to communicate, a fabulous tool for parents to use is language modeling. Language modeling means providing a running example of the language you might want your child to use. While any communication in the presence of children can serve as a model, there are a few simple steps parents can take to use language modeling most effectively.
STEP ONE: Model exactly what your child should or could say. Instead of asking your child questions, which is often our first instinct, simply provide a model for what he might say if he could speak in full sentences. You can talk about your own actions, but also use the first person in talking about what your child is doing – as if you are giving him the words to use.
STEP TWO: Break down language. Depending on your child’s language level, you might say something naturally, and then break it down into very simple words and phrases. Emphasize the most salient words with a lot of repetition.
STEP THREE: Build up language. Once you’ve emphasized the most important words, build the sentence back up by adding words and phrases gradually, until you are back to a natural-sounding comment.
To illustrate each of these steps, let’s look at two common settings.
Setting 1: Billy is playing quietly with toy cars and trucks. Parent joins him on the floor and watches as he drives a truck up and down a ramp.
- Model exactly: “Vroom! Vroom! Look at my truck! It’s going up and down the ramp!” (Notice that the parent speaks in first person, even though the child is the one with the truck. The parent is giving the child language to say in the situation.)
- Break it down: “Look at my truck. Truck goes up! Truck goes down. Up and down. Up! Down! Truck up. Truck down. Up! Down. Up! Down.”
- Build it up: “Up and down. Truck up, truck down. Truck goes up. My truck goes up. My truck goes down. My truck goes up and down. It goes up and down the ramp.”
Setting 2: Amanda is sitting at meal time with a bowl of noodles, eating messily. Noodles are everywhere!
- Model exactly: “Mmmmm, I’m eating noodles. I want more noodles!”
- Break it down: “I’m eating yummy noodles, and I want some more! Eating noodles. Eat, eat, eat. Yum! Eat noodles. More noodles! More, more, more.”
- Build it up: “More, more, more. More noodles. Eating more noodles. I’m eating more noodles. Yummy, yummy, I’m eating more yummy noodles!”
It is important to note that nowhere in language modeling is there a step where parents tell children to say something (“Billy, say ‘truck,’” “Amanda, say ‘more,’”) or ask them questions (“Billy, what do you have?” “Amanda, what are you eating?”). By instead providing children with accessible examples of language, we accomplish two things. First, we take the pressure off of the child to respond immediately and we instead allow them to listen, absorb, and then begin to try using the language themselves as they are ready. Secondly, we are actually providing a much better and more realistic example of actual communication than prompting or questioning would. (How often in your daily adult communication do you tell another person to say something?) While it may feel silly to us to speak so simply and with such repetition, this strategy introduces basic and relevant language in exactly the context that a child would use it. When children hear frequent models of simple language they can use, they gain the familiarity and confidence to try it themselves.
Written by: Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist