Helping Your Child Communicate: The Power of Offering ChoicesAbby Barnes, M.S., CCC-SLP
When a child says their first word, it’s an amazing thing to witness! Communication is what connects us all to each other. But sometimes children need a little extra help in learning to talk.
Fortunately, there are easy techniques you can begin using today to help your child communicate. One simple technique is offering your child choices.
Offering choices will help your child use more words. When I use this strategy in speech therapy sessions, parents are amazed at what their child can communicate! Many times parents will say, “I had no idea they could do that!”
Here's how to use this speech therapy technique at home.
How do choices help children learn to talk?
When it comes to the early days of language development, offering choices is such an effective strategy because it is a structured context for communication.
Take a second and think about the types of questions you tend to ask your child, such as “What would you like to eat?”, “What book would you like to read?”, and that famous question: “What do you want?”
While these types of questions may seem simple to us, they're open-ended questions, and your child may not yet have the expressive vocabulary to independently provide answers. That’s why offering choices is so powerful. It makes figuring out what a toddler needs less of a guessing game.
Once you start using this strategy at home, the puzzle pieces of communication will begin to fit together!
How to offer your child choices
Let’s review some examples of how you can offer choices to your child at home.
Ask your child a simple question during play, such as, “What toy would you like?”
After you ask the question, present two options to your child to review, such as a toy bus and a puzzle.
Gesture to the bus and say “Bus,” then gesture to the puzzle and say, “Or puzzle?”
Wait expectantly and observe how your child tries to communicate. It may be through gestures, like pointing to the desired toy. Or they might use a verbalization--a sound or a word--to signal which item they prefer.
When we keep communication requests simple and structured, children are more likely to successfully express their thoughts and ideas.
Your child’s response: Gestures or verbalizations
Many children will use gestures before making consistent verbalizations. This is normal in the progression of language development. Gestures like pointing typically develop before talking.
If your child doesn't usually verbalize or imitate many words, then expect gestures from them right now. That’s OK--pointing is absolutely communication! Make sure to praise your child for their communication attempt. This feeling of achievement will encourage your child to communicate more and begin attempting verbalizations.
Gestures like pointing typically develop before talking.
Once your child is consistently using gestures when you give them two choices, it’s a good time to start focusing on their verbalizations. When you offer choices, emphasize each word a couple of times. If your child points to an item (the toy bus, for example), model it for them and prompt your child to imitate. You can say, “Bus! You want the bus! You say it--bus!” Then pause and wait for your child’s response.
Working one level above your child
This is another tip I like to give parents and caregivers. If your child is not attempting to imitate your word models, give your child something simpler to imitate, such as the first sound of the word. In the example above, prompt your child to imitate the /b/ sound, as a simple approximation for “bus.”
As always, children respond to positivity. Get excited and cheer your child on each time they verbalize, even if they're only saying part of the word. Children’s coordination and motor-planning for speech can take some time to develop. Over time, your child’s sound productions will begin to sound more like true words.
Cheer your child on each time they verbalize, even if they're only saying part of the word.
If your early communicator is already imitating words right and left, that’s wonderful! Now, see if they’ll continue imitating words after you verbally present two choices (without having to visually show them each option).
Another way to increase the challenge is to prompt them to use two-word phrases, such as, “Bus please!” or “More bus!”
How often should you practice speech and language at home?
The more you practice at home, the better! When you frequently offer choices, your child will quickly gain confidence in their communication skills. That will really get language development rolling. Your child will soon begin to use gestures and verbalizations on their own, without any prompting from you.
This is why it's so important to practice, practice, practice! Give your child at least 30 to 40 opportunities to make choices throughout their day. That may seem like a lot, but I promise you can do it! You can easily offer choices in everyday situations, such as asking what snack your child would like, what toy they want to play with, or which shoes they want to wear. Communication practice is easy fit into your daily routine.