Babies and Toddlers3 MINUTE READ

Using Choices to Promote Your Child's Speech and Language

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, they need to understand language before they can use it. But 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?

Your 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 intent to communicate. They’ve already shown some great foundational language skills just by approaching you with something they want.

1 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.

2 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!

3 Use visual cues

Language learning is all about context, so visual cues that the child can see 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.

4 Model language expansion

What happens next? Let's say your child makes a verbal choice by saying the word "pretzels." We can then 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 said?

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 OK. You’ve still exposed them to the vocabulary. Go ahead and give them the item. 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?

You can easily use this strategy during 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. If your child reaches for the toy box and you ask them “Do you want to play with some of your 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

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.

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