Did you know that the more talk that goes on at home, the better a toddler’s vocabulary will be? Sounds pretty logical, right? But I’m not only talking about when they’re little. Research tells us that the more a child is surrounded by language, the better the toddler’s vocabulary is both at 3 years, and 9 years of age! So the solution to helping your child grow up with great language skills? Talk more!
But let’s talk about the different types of talk. Two techniques that are always recommended by speech pathologists are ‘self talk’ and ‘parallel talk’.
Self talk simply means talking about what you’re doing while your little one is watching you.
Examples: “I want blue play-doh”. “I’m rolling the play-doh”. “Now I’m cutting”. “It’s a star!” “Squash the star!” “Rolling it…. rolling it….”. “I’m making a snowman”.
Parallel talk is talking about what your child is seeing or doing.
Examples: “You’ve got green play-doh”. “You’re rolling it”. “Cutting the play-doh”. “It’s a teddy!” “Squash the teddy!” “Rolling the play-doh again”. “You’re making a dog”.
Of course, you can switch between self and parallel talk constantly as you play, talking about whatever your child is most interested in at the time. If your toddler isn’t really talking yet, using these techniques might feel a little strange to some people – like you’re talking to yourself. That’s ok! Keep using these techniques and it won’t be very long before your child starts talking back to you (in a good way, that is).
Make sure you leave lots of gaps in what you say to allow opportunities for your child to chime in, even if it’s just with a smile, giggle, some babble, or part of a word. Reward these communication attempts by smiling or repeating back what they said, because what they’re doing is having a conversation with you! They just may not be using real words to do it yet. You don’t want to be keeping a running commentary as if you’re at a horse race because your child will never get a chance to take part in the conversation. Do the same if your child is saying some words. Leave gaps for them to comment, reward any communication with smiles and then expand on what they said. For example:
You: “Building a tower”.
You: “That’s right, a tower! Up, up, up!”
Lots of parents use self and parallel talk often without even thinking about it, but it can be helpful to stop and think about HOW and WHAT you’re saying.
- Follow your child’s lead in the activity. Talk about what they are looking at and interested in, whether that is what they’re doing, what you’re doing, or something outside the window. In real life the above example might go like this: “You’ve got green play-doh. I want….blue! We’re rolling the play-doh; roll, roll, roll. You’re cutting. It’s a teddy! I made a star. Squash the teddy and the star! Rolling play-doh… – Look, a plane! You see a plane. Up, up, up in the sky. Hello, plane!”
- Get down at your child’s level so you can make eye contact easily. Take part in the activity they’re interested in rather than sitting back and watching them play.
- Match + 1: Try to use roughly the same amount of words in your sentences as your child uses then add one more. So if your child uses mainly single words, try to use mainly two word phrases (e.g. I’m cutting. A star! Roll it). If they are putting two words together most of the time, use three words in your sentence. This keeps things at a level they feel comfortable with but also continues to push their language skills forward. Your child is more likely to copy your words if you use similar length phrases to what they can already do than if you use very long sentences. Don’t get hung up on counting words! Just keep things roughly as short and simple as what your child says.
- Try to use simple nouns (names of things) and verbs (action words) when you’re using self and parallel talk. As children learn language they typically learn the names of objects first (e.g. milk, apple), followed by the words for actions (e.g. pour, drink, cut, eat). Then they start to learn words for basic locations (in, out, up, down), size (big, small), and quantities or qualities (one, more, all gone, yummy, yucky, hot).
Notice that in the above examples there are no questions, such as “What are you doing?” or “What’s that?” Self and parallel talk are all about providing your child with the language they could be using as they play to help build their vocabulary. It’s not about testing their knowledge. If you ask “What’s that?” your child will either tell you what the thing is, in which case they haven’t gained any extra knowledge about it, or they won’t know the name of it and so won’t be able to respond. In the second instance you could then just tell them what the thing is, but I often find by that stage the child has lost interest in the interaction.
Try to turn that question into a comment, so instead of “What’s that?”, say “It’s a star!”. Instead of “What are you doing?”, say “You’re cutting”. This keeps the interaction positive and more free flowing. Remember, those moments of shared interaction not only are a foundation for language development over time but help to build a beautiful relationship with your little one.