It’s always exciting when we have to work on expanding language with our kids. They have worked extremely hard to produce expressive speech and now we want them to explore what a powerful tool an increased vocabulary can be to them.
So, how do we get our children from saying single phrases to conversing about a variety of topics without teaching them in a rote manner? Good question. An idea would be to start with what we feel has not worked for our clients in the past and then give ideas of activities that have helped.
What hasn’t helped:
- Rote learning. There are some therapeutic modalities that believe breaking each concept down to the smallest target will help our children get to what they need to work on eventually. We do not feel that this is the case with concepts such as increasing vocabulary. Sure, if you are teaching your child how to tie his or her shoelaces it helps to break down the skill to achievable targets – ie loop one lace, push through the second one (I am probably not the one to ask to give you the task analysis of this as I prefer flip flops). Things like conversing in a natural way though – that is something that needs to happen, like it suggests: naturally! We don’t wait until a child is “ready” to learn within his natural environment – we believe that teaching a child naturally from the start is the only thing that will make sense to him or her. Yes, we adapt to what he or she likes and where they are developmentally, but we do not believe that questions like “how are you?” and then an instruction “say: good and you” will achieve a natural conversation for any child.
- Conversation starters – there should be a distinction here, maybe I should rather say “boring conversation starters”, as this is usually the case that we have seen in some therapy sessions. There is a pile of cards that a child needs to take turns with the therapist and reads a topic out loud and then ask a question to the therapist. This can work if it’s about the child’s favorite dinosaurs, for example, but usually the agenda of the therapist is to teach the child pragmatic language starters – such as how you are, where you are going, how your weekend was and zzz. If your child is struggling to expand his or her language, the last thing that they are going to want to focus on is your past weekend, trust me.
- Learning about other people’s interests. Similar to the above-mentioned point – your child does not want to learn about what you like. We will get to what the obvious alternative to this in a bit.
- Fill in the blank prompts – now again, this might work in some instances and for a short period of time, but to always prompt (full vocal echoic if you want the behavioral term) a child an almost entire sentence and just leaving out the last word is not a good “long-term” plan. We have so many children that have learned this bad habit and is now, very adorably giving all their therapists or friends the same prompts to complete their sentences. This will not mimic a “normal” conversation.
- “I have (item), I like (activity), I see (item)” – this is one that gets under my skin sometimes. Many therapists are trained to start these turn-taking sentences with children where they randomly state what they see, have, feel, hear, etc. They then expect the child to state something else that they see, have, feel, hear, etc. Where in the world does anyone speak like this? Do you ever go to your friends and randomly say “I hear a car” and then wait for someone else to say what they can hear?! I hope not. Again though – this can be done naturally in a game with weird sounds to identify (to make it fun and functional) or when something is really out of the norm – “I can hear giant footsteps and I see a dude dressed in a hulk outfit!”
What does work then? Let’s look at some activities that we have found work really well with our children:
- A vocabulary book of interests – determine what your child loves and then go on a research project mission to find out all the interesting facts you can. You can do this with your child (depending on their developmental level of course), but you can Google some interesting facts about (for example) the superheroes they so love. Then create a vocab book where you write, draw, paste pictures, etc of all these characteristics and facts about each superhero. It should be spark their interest and definitely give them more words and topics to talk about. If you were wondering – this is the alternative to teaching a child your interests – rather show interest in what they like. This makes way more sense to us and to them.
- Outings – we LOVE outings at AIMS Global. The more we can take our children out in the real world, the better. Our recipe for an outing:
2.1 Preparation is key! Ask your child where they feel like going – give choices or let them explore places themselves by searching on GPS for example.
2.2 On the day of the outing, print a map out or let your child use your GPS to the outing’s destination. You are working on so many important concepts here already – planning, prioritizing, impulse control, flexibility, problem-solving skills, creativity, etc.
2.3 Remember to make a shopping list or a to-do list with your child when you go somewhere. They should follow the list, have more control throughout and have a lot of fun doing so!
2.4 Take photos and videos of your outing! Most of our children love watching this afterwards and this leads us to the last important point…
2.5 Have a recap moment where you write down or print photos of what happened during the outing, where you went, what you did and show this to other people in your child’s life. This “secret” strategy has helped us expand our children’s language enormously and they have loved doing so every step of the outing!
- Having normal conversations – when your child says something, try and continue speaking about that topic, don’t try and change topics as your lesson in mind is “turn-taking”. We have noticed that the best planned out sessions usually never end up the way we planned. We have to learn to “go with the flow” although that sounds a bit too hippy for us, it’s true.
I’m sure I’m missing many other secret strategies that we use, but these ones stood out as the most important to relay. If you have some ideas, please let us know! We truly believe that “sharing is caring” and we feel information is power once it’s shared. Please email us some ideas that you have implemented and it has sparked an interest in your child to expand on topics of conversation, in a natural way. We love hearing from our audience: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you and keep on talking… Or more importantly, keep on listening, observing, joining and connecting with your awesome kiddo!