As your child's caregiver, you have so many opportunities every day to help them learn to communicate. Here's one easy way to help your child increase not only their language comprehension--the words they understand--but also their verbal language output, or the words they say.
Why give your child choices?
When young children are developing early language skills, we know that they need to understand language before they can use it. Even then, we sometimes see a gap between receptive language comprehension, or the words we understand, and expressive language use, or how we communicate wants and needs. Parents of my clients will often tell me: “They understand everything I’m telling them, but they just aren’t using those words.”
There are many strategies that a speech therapist can teach you to help you build a language-rich environment at home. Today I’m covering how to use verbal and visual choices as a way to help your child understand language and start using new words.
How do I offer my child choices?
A child may approach you with a want or a need. Maybe they’re hungry, maybe they’d like to play with you--this is great! We’re going to take advantage of their communicative intent. They’ve already shown some great foundational language skills just by approaching you with something they want.
Note the context:
When your child initiates a need or want, we should take note of the context. Are they looking toward the kitchen? Reaching for the toy cupboard? Perfect--now let’s follow their lead. If they’re reaching for the pantry, we can take the opportunity to model the words they could say: “I’m hungry.” Modeling means offering your child an example of something that they could or should say in that moment.
Offer your child a choice:
Now, let’s reach into the pantry and take out two options for them. It’s important that these are options you're willing for them to have. So it might not be a good idea to offer your child cookies or popsicles if you’d rather they had neither!
Use visual cues:
Language learning is all about context, so visual cues are important. If you can get your hands on both the options you’re offering, that’s ideal. Show both, offering one at a time, and say “Pretzels? Or raisins?” When we model these simple labels, we’re building comprehension and providing a hint for kids who might already have these words in their receptive vocabulary, but now just need to use them.
Model language expansion:
What happens next? Let's say your child verbally chooses "pretzels." We can then take the opportunity to model a language expansion--adding another word or two to make a phrase or sentence. This helps cue your child into the next possible word they could say. For example: “I want pretzels” or “Pretzels, please.”
What if my child doesn’t imitate the word I modeled?
If your child reaches for one of the choices without saying or imitating one of the words you’ve modeled, pause and continue to hold the object out of reach. Say the name of their choice once more. If they still don’t imitate you, that’s okay. You’ve still exposed them to the vocabulary. If they do imitate, nice work! You might now try language expansion. Either way, go ahead and give them the pretzels, or whatever they’ve chosen.
When can I give my child choices?
This strategy can easily be used across all sorts of daily activities. Here are some examples:
Getting dressed? If so, what should we put on first: “Pants, or shirt?”
Ready to play? If so: “Blocks, or puzzle?”
At the playground? "Swings, or slide?"
Common mistakes to avoid when offering your child a choice
It's best to keep your words simple, as in the examples above. This increases the likelihood that your child will understand and imitate. By comparison, if your child reaches for the toy box and you ask them: “Do you want to play with some toys?” or “Let’s find your cars to play with,” you might be missing out on an opportunity for them to jump in and say simple words themselves.
What to do if you're concerned about your child’s speech and language development
If you think your child may have a speech or language delay, contact their doctor. They may recommend an evaluation for speech services. You can also take our easy online screener and discuss the results with one of our certified speech therapists for free.