Eight ways to build language & communication skills for late talkers
“Molly is 16 months old, but when she wants something she just grunts and pulls on me.”
“When will Jake start talking? He still doesn’t say any complete words at 19 months!”
This is one subject that I feel pretty comfortable discussing with other parents. As the anxious mother of one child with global developmental delays and one late-talking child who spontaneously started speaking in sentences at age 31 months, I’ve consulted with more than my share of speech therapists.
Here are eight ways you can help your late-talking child develop speech and language skills.
1. Sign language
Sign language is one type of alternative communication that has been proven to facilitate speech development. My younger son resisted sign language at first, but by the time he turned 2, his frustration level was high enough that he wanted to find a way to communicate.
We started with just a few signs such as “more” and “milk,” and we were up to about 40 signs within 3 months. Every time my son made a sign, I would imitate it and say the word it represented. If I interpreted it incorrectly, he would shake his head to say “no” and try again.
A great way to learn about using sign language with babies or toddlers is with a DVD such as Baby Signing Time or a book such as Baby Signs by Linda Acredolo.
Some people learn to sing before they can talk. Sometimes the rhythm of music makes more sense than the rhythm of speech. My husband and I noticed that our first baby responded better to music than to speech, so we started inventing songs about everything from green beans to brushing teeth.
One of our younger son’s early breakthroughs was his love of the Beatles. I was amazed the first time he sang along with “Yellow Submarine” at the top of his lungs. That’s the power of music.
Recent research in Australia, which followed 750 pregnant women and their children over a period of 10 years, found a connection between vitamin D deficiency and speech and language delays. The mothers who had low levels of vitamin during pregnancy were twice as likely to have children with language problems.
Vitamin D is known to be important for brain development and function, and most Americans are deficient. Other vitamins and minerals are also connected with speech development, and should be discussed with a pediatrician.
4. Questions vs. Statements
One surefire way to annoy both of my sons is to ask a series of questions, especially when an adult approaches them and starts with, “How old are you? What grade are you in? Do you like school? Are you shy?”
My kids will not respond to an aggressive line of questioning due to performance anxiety. A much more effective and polite way to communicate with a late-talker is to model statements, descriptions and exclamations such as, “You’re eating chocolate ice cream. Chocolate is my favorite flavor.”
Declarative language does not require a response, but it does a better job of inviting new ideas to the conversation. Speech therapist Linda Murphy writes, “The results of declarative language may not be as immediate as those with imperative language because it takes time to build and form neural pathways that have not yet been fostered, but the increased richness in overall communication makes its use very much worth the wait.” When the pressure to speak is minimized, speech flows more freely.
The single least effective method for stimulating speech in a toddler is to tell the child what to say: “Ball. Say, ‘ball.’ Cat. Say, ‘Cat.’” My older son had a few speech therapists who did this, and he would always look at them like they had a serious problem - and he never complied with their requests, either.
The single most effective method of stimulating speech is for the caregiver to imitate every sound that the child makes.
One of the most useful articles I’ve found on this subject is “When ‘Simon Says’ Doesn’t Work” by DeThorne, Johnson, Walder and Mahurin-Smith in the May 2009 issue of the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. Here the authors suggest, “A clinician’s imitation of the child might include verbal or nonverbal actions...For example, if the child yawns, the clinician might pretend to yawn (with an exaggerated vowel-like sound) and wait to see how the child responds.
Clinicians can also imitate a child’s spontaneous verbalizations; for example, if the child says ‘baba,’ the adult conversational partner might imitate ‘baba’ and then use it as a start for the song ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep.’”
6. Slow down
Some children have difficulty understanding the beginning, middle or end of a word. It is helpful for the adult to slow down his or her speech so that the child can comprehend and respond. Sometimes the child may need to feel the adult’s face to understand how the words are formed, and the adult can gently touch the child’s face to show how to make the sounds.
7. Provide rich sensory experiences
Children with speech disorders such as Childhood Apraxia of Speech often have differences in sensory processing. Because of these differences, sensory integration can be a valuable tool in speech therapy.
Carol Kranowitz’s book, The Out-Of-Sync Child Has Fun, is packed full of activities that you can do at home with your child. We used shaving cream, water, cotton balls, “moon sand,” edible play dough and lots of other textured items at home to get our kids talking. We also have a slide, mini-trampoline, body sock, balance board, sit-n-spin and other movement-related toys in our house.
8. Play to talk
All humans communicate through play. Play is the ideal way to encourage back-and-forth exchanges of ideas with young children. In his book Play to Talk, author James MacDonald explains how parents can turn everyday situations into playful encounters that nurture all types of communication skills.
In fact, all of the above methods can be combined to create an in-home play therapy program to support your child’s unique developmental needs. I know it’s possible, because that’s what I did to help my children learn, one developmentally delayed and one late-talking.
Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"