Mama, Dada, go, ball, and hi are all common first words you may hear your child say between 12-15 months old. Hearing your child say their first word is not only exciting, but helpful to be able to attend to your child’s wants and needs. Although each child develops language skills at different rates, delayed expressive language skills are usually first noticed by families.
Expressive language is the ability to communicate thoughts through words, gestures, and/or facial expressions. Expressive language allows one to communicate their wants and needs, socialize with others and interact in their environment. In order for a child to begin expressing themselves with words, there are a number of prerequisite skills that need to be mastered.
Prerequisites to talking
Exploration of the environment. Children should be constantly reacting to situations in their surroundings such as noises, lights, people, and activities. Reacting to others and new experiences are core features of communication.
Strategies to try at home: Interact with your child in new ways to encourage exploration. Bang on pots and pans in the kitchen during meal prep, let your child ring the doorbell when walking in the house, or make a light show with flashlights. Be creative while incorporating music, sounds, visuals, and familiar faces!
Acknowledges others during play. Communication involves at least two people, so learning how to interact with another person is a necessary component. Children should want to be around others and react to interactions initiated by others.
Strategies to try at home: Get on the floor and play with your child! Initiate interactions by taking a turn on a puzzle, bumping your toy car into his, or stacking a block on his tower. Let your child acknowledge your interaction by imitating or responding in their own way. Continue to model interactive play with your child as often as possible.
Adequate attention and joint attention. Child should be able to remain on a single toy or activity for at least five minutes. Joint attention is when a child is focused on the same item or activity as the communicator or parent.
Strategies to try at home: To increase attention to asks, set a visual timer for two to three minutes on a chosen toy before they are able to pick a new activity. Instead of time increments, set a number of turns before moving to a new activity such as three puzzle pieces, three car races, or three items on Mr. Potato Head. In order to improve joint attention, be sure to sit at your child’s level and in their line of vision.Show your child that you are interacting with the same object by pointing, naming, and interacting with the same toy.
Demonstrates age-appropriate play skills. Language skills are most often learned through play in early development. Learning opportunities are frequent during pretend play, and while using interactive toys and early concept toys such as animals and play food. Playing with toys appropriately is required in order to use play to learn language. This may look like a child racing a car, pretending to stir a pot, or placing blocks on top of each other.
Strategies to try at home: Play with toys that require the child to interact, instead of watching it do something (i.e. light-up toys, ipads). Examples of good toys include puzzles, blocks, dolls, play kitchen and animal figurines. Model appropriate play with toys and encourage your child to imitate.
Understands words and commands. In order to use language to communicate, a child must understand language. This includes following simple requests such as “throw the ball” or “bring me book”, identifying pictures in books, or grabbing a named object in a group of three or more.
Strategies to try at home: If your child has difficulty following directions, give a verbal command first and then model the action. During routine activities such as getting dressed, brushing teeth, or leaving the house, give specific and consistent commands such as “put on your coat” or “open the door”.
Begins to imitate sounds, gestures, or facial expressions. Mimicking gestures teaches the concept of learning language through imitation without the pressure to use words. A child should learn to copy funny faces, clapping, waving, high-fiving, and other common gestures before being expected to imitate words.
Strategies to try at home: Sing nursery rhymes and do the gestures along with it such as Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Wheels on the Bus, and Pat-a-Cake. For facial expression, sit in front of the mirror and make funny faces such as sticking out your tongue. During social activities, encourage your child to wave to people they see and high-five family and friends.
Communicates wants and needs with gestures and/or pointing. Children will often learn to point to request objects before using words. Finding ways to express wants and needs by pointing, grabbing, or leading, is a way of nonverbal communication.
Strategies to try at home: If your child is wanting food or a toy, hold up two options and give the prompt, “what do you want?” Encourage your child to point by modeling the gesture. Teaching baby signs is a great way to facilitate non-verbal language as well. Start with teaching the signs for more, all done, and eat.
Once your child has developed the prerequisite skills for language develop, they will start to babble, imitate sounds, and use words for communicative purposes. The typical milestones for language develop are listed below. If your child is a late-talking, the months will vary but the hierarchy of skills will be relatively similar.
Typical Expressive Language Development
Makes pleasure sounds such as cooing and gooing
Smiles at familiar faces
Vocalizes to express anger
Initiates “talking” by playing with new sounds
Whines with manipulative purpose or cries for different needs
Babbles with different sounds including p, b, and m
Vocalizes excitement and anger
Makes raspberries or gurgling sounds
Vocalizes four different syllables
Vocalizes two-syllable combination, example “uh oh”
Makes noises during play
Attempts to sings along with familiar song
Shouts or vocalizes to gain attention
Says mama or dada meaningfully
Repeats different consonant and vowel combinations
Imitates environment sounds such as car beep, animal sounds, or fire engine siren
Says or imitates between eight to 10 words independently
Imitates new words frequently
Says three animal sounds
Combines vocalizations and gestures when asking for an object (pointing and saying “milk”)
Babbles with adult-like intonation and occasional words
Child produces 15 words consistently
Uses words more than gestures
Begins to ask questions such as “what’s that?”
Child will name objects on request
Uses a variety of early consonant sounds like p, b, t, d, n, m, and h
Uses words frequently
Will imitate two-three word phrases such as “help me” or “want more please”
Child will occasionally produce two word phrases on their own
How to Encourage Language Development after First Words
After your child starts saying words, you may feel the progress of new vocabulary is slow. Modeling language, creating opportunities, and setting expectations are important to grow your child’s expressive language vocabulary. Below are a list of strategies to implement at home to improve your child’s use of words.
Narrate everything. During play, routines, and daily activities, narrate what you and your child are doing. Use simple, concrete nouns (dog, milk, cookie) and common verbs (go, eat, drink) in short phrases. If your child speaks in one word sentences, use two to three word sentences when narrating.
What does it look like? When getting dressed, mom says “Grace zips coat”. During mealtimes, dad says “I cut apple”.
Create language opportunities. Provide opportunities by holding toys back during play to encourage your child to request more of activities or specific items.
Parent: “What do you want?”
Child: No response
*Parent gives child one item*
If your child does not imitate word after two attempts, provide the toy so he or she does not become frustrated.
Wait. Parents know what their child wants without them having to verbally request with a word. Instead of automatically putting your child’s coat on or giving him the preferred toy, allow a period of wait time. Silently look at what your child wants, and wait for your child to request item. If your child does not say the item, give him a verbal model. If your child still doesn’t say the word after giving a prompt, give the item to your child.
What does it look like?
Parent: *silently looking at item”
Child: No response
Parent: “What do you want?”
Child: No response
*Parent gives ball*
Give choices. Providing two options to children forces them to communicate the object/activity they prefer. During meal times, hold up a preferred food (goldfish) and non-preferred food (carrot) then ask your child which one they want. During play time, hold up two toys such as puzzle or ball.
What does it look like?
Parent: *Holds broccoli and goldfish*
Parent: “Which one do you want?”
Child: *Points to goldfish”
*Parent gives fish*
Make it fun. Most importantly, make language development fun! The best way to do this is play with your child at their level. Teach them unique ways to play with your toys by making forts, pretend play, or setting up a picnic for all the stuffed animals. Children learn by imitating caregivers so continue to model phrases, play, and interaction with others.
Every child develops language at their own pace, but if you feel your child is significantly behind based on the typical milestone chart provided contact Lumiere Children’s Therapy for a language evaluation from one of our speech therapists.
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