By Diane Paul, PhD, CCC-SLP
Toddlers develop speech and language skills quickly. These skills are the foundation for future reading and writing abilities, as well as overall academic and social success. But you don’t need expensive toys; apps or electronic learning programs; or flashcards or workbooks to build these skills. You can add to speech and language skills by doing what you do all day long, for free.
1. Talk—every chance you have. Talk about what you’re doing while you do it. For example, when you’re changing diapers (“Let’s clean you up first. I’m getting a fresh clean diaper...”); making dinner (“I’m getting some big red tomatoes. We can put them in a salad.”); sorting laundry (“We’ll put the light-colored clothes in this pile and the dark-colored clothes over here.”); or giving a bath (“Splash, splash, splash. This is so much fun.”). Other forms of communication such as gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice are also important.
Tip: Pause and take turns. You are teaching conversation. For example, “Want to go outside?” Pause and wait for an answer even if your child doesn’t talk. Then say, “You want to go play.”
Technique: Build on your child’s single words with a longer sentence. (If your child says “ball,” You say, “Let’s get the big, blue, bouncy ball.”) This is called scaffolding, a well-known technique used by speech-language pathologists and other early childhood experts.
Tip: Use lots of different words, big and small, when you talk to your child. This will build their vocabulary skills.
Technique: Label and expand—write the names of common objects in your house and outside on post-it notes, then attach them to those objects. Use each word in a full sentence. (“That’s a tree. Look at the leaves on the tree.”)
2. Read. Select books based on your child’s age. Younger toddlers will enjoy board books and waterproof books in the bath. Older children will like rhyming books and books with pictures and a repeating story line. Read different kinds of books, but also—read the same books over and over. Your toddler will have favorites, even if you’re tired of them.
Tip: Make a routine that involves daily reading. Books are not just for bedtime. Read to your child during baths, at a restaurant, and after a nap. Ask your children questions about the story.
Technique: Teach prediction as you read a new story. Have your child guess what will come next and how the book will end.
Tip: Point out details as you read—about where the story takes place, the characters’ clothes or hair, or anything else your child might find interesting.
Technique: Use dialogic reading, which is when the reader of a story helps the listener tell the story. Children learn to listen and be story tellers. Ask your child to tell you something about the book. You comment and expand what the child says. You ask again.
3. Play. Hands-on play where children can use their imaginations helps young children grow their vocabularies and boost their brain development.
Tip: Provide everyday objects for play like brushes, boxes, and pans. Use old-fashioned toys over electronic ones. Blocks, Lincoln Logs, dolls, puzzles, cars and trucks, balls, and other simple toys and objects give your child the opportunity to use their creativity without limits. You don’t need toys or books that talk or are “interactive.” Studies have found that children and parents talk less when toys talk.
Technique: Boost imaginative play. Use common objects in novel ways. Pretend a brush is a microphone, a box is a drum, and pan lids are cymbals. You’ve helped your child create their own band by using their imagination.
Tip: Use household objects or toys to act out different daily events, such as bath time or going to the grocery store or restaurant.
Technique: Role play different characters. Use puppets or dolls to play dad and baby, teacher and student, or cashier and customer.
4. Get outside. Nature is filled with endless opportunities for learning. This is a great way for kids to use their senses to build understanding of the world around them.
Tip: Follow your child’s lead. Respond to what they’re interested in—the birds, the worms, the flowers, or eating snacks in a park. Talk about what they see, smell, hear, taste, and touch.
Technique: Build joint attention. When you notice what interests your child and pay attention to that as well, that shared focus provides the ideal time to talk about your shared experience.
Tip: Talk about differences you see between objects. Use all sorts of describing words.
Technique: Teach antonyms, or opposites. Teaching opposite words builds vocabulary and helps your child understand differences in their environment. (“Look at the big tree. Let’s find a little tree. Here’s a step. Let’s go down. Now let’s climb the steps and go up.)
5. Use screens sparingly. Tablets are loved by toddlers and helpful to parents when they are trying to get chores or work done. When used in moderation, this is fine, but pay attention to the amount of time young children spend on devices—and how easily 10 minutes can become an hour. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 18 months and younger spend zero times on screens except for video chatting with loved ones, and children 18-24 months and 2-5 years spend no more than one hour per day using screens. Most importantly, you want to be sure screen is not taking away from time for imaginative play, outdoors, reading, and talking and interacting.
Tip: Select online content wisely. Not all apps, shows, and websites are equal. Look from high-quality material from trusted sources such as PBS Kids. Common Sense Media offers reviews of shows and apps for parents.
Technique: Co-view when possible. Watch what your child is watching, or play their online game with them. Ask questions about the characters or story—or the goal of the game.
Tip: Pay attention to the amount of time you focus on your own screen.
Technique: Model good screen habits. Your child will notice when you put down your phone and give them your undivided attention.
Diane Paul, PhD, CCC-SLP, is Director of Clinical Issues in Speech-Language Pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
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