How to Improve Your Child’s Speech And Language Skills
Takeaway: Speech and language delays can significantly lower your child’s quality of life. But you can help by using everyday activities to trigger her natural desire to play, learn, and communicate. And for children with more significant speech and language delays, specialists have an entire toolkit of advanced teaching techniques.
Speech and language skills help children express themselves. And it’s a challenge to develop them.
To survive and thrive, children need to engage with the people around them. This means making requests, sharing ideas, listening to new information, playing, laughing, and more. But building up to these means learning a series of skills. Children first need to expand their vocabulary to include the things, feelings, and ideas they want to express. Next, they’ll need to build sentences around these words, using appropriate grammar. And they’ll have to sequence these sentences to create a clear, compelling line of thought. Finally, they’ll need to go beyond all these rules and customs to understand ‘pragmatic language’ – i.e., the deeper meaning behind hidden behind the words people use. (E.g., a friend might say she’s feeling fine but clearly looks disappointed.)
Sometimes, children get stuck when developing these skills. And you can spot this via telltale signs.
Most children develop their speech and language skills in roughly the same way. But some struggle from time to time. For example, you might notice them stopping midway through a sentence to find the right word. Or they might find the words but put them together wrong – mixing up word order, tenses, plurality, etc. Most notably, they’ll miss developmental milestones like using simple words (e.g., ‘mama’ or ‘dada’) by 12-15 months, understanding words like ‘stop’ and ‘no’ by 18 months, speaking in short sentences by age 3, and telling simple stories by age 5. Learn more about developmental milestones.
Speech and language delays have many possible causes, but they affect a child’s quality of life very predictably.
Children struggle with speech and language for all sorts of reasons. For example, they might have problems with their executive functions, making it harder for them to concentrate and stick to a learning goal. Or they could have mouths, tongues, or palettes structured differently, getting in the way of making speech sounds. Whatever the cause, most speech and language delays have a similar effect. They make it harder for children to learn, participate in class discussions, enjoy close friendships, and nurture successful careers later in life.
So, what can parents do to help? For one, we can shift teaching away from formal settings and into everyday life.
We tend to think that teaching needs to be a formal activity led by trained professionals. But this isn’t always true. Your child will internalise what she learns much better if you find teaching moments in everyday life. That’s because lessons are more meaningful when they’re connected to the things and people your child loves. So, bathtime is the perfect opportunity to build her vocabulary – using words like ‘wash,’ ‘float,’ ‘wet,’ and ‘flannel’. Going for a walk is a chance to talk about everything she sees – like the children playing, the yummy doughnuts, or the fast cyclist. And watching cartoons is a chance to highlight simple sentences she can use.
Remember, you’re trying to explore language with your child spontaneously.
Ultimately, your goal is straightforward: teach essential speech sounds, vocabulary, and grammar through repetition/practice and praise. But you’ll be doing all this spontaneously, making use of moment-to-moment opportunities. For example, if your 10-month-old yawns, you could copy the yawn and add a vowel sound to it, just to see how she reacts. Or a few months later, if she’s making the sound ‘baba,’ you could say ‘baba’ too and transition into singing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep.’ Or once she’s speaking and says something like, ‘Look, bird!’ you might reply, ‘Yes, that’s a pretty bird!’ This kind of back-and-forth – building on what your child says or does – is much more effective than sitting her down and teaching her new words from a long list. So, the key is to imitate, add on, and subtly correct.
You can expand this spontaneity to playtime, too.
Play is a great way to develop your child’s social and mental skills like taking turns, working with others, sharing, observing, decoding body language, listening, and more. But it’s a fun way to expand speech and language limits, too. For example, you could help your child build a tower of blocks and then say ‘One, two, three … Go!’ as a signal for her to knock the blocks down. After doing this a few times, you could say ‘One, two, three’ and pause to see if she adds the ‘Go!’ You’re mixing in language development with a multisensory activity – which helps to grasp the concept better. But remember to let your child lead. In the example above, encouraging her to say ‘Go!’ won’t have the same effect as her figuring it out for herself – because it’s the ‘figuring out’ that drives authentic learning.
Most importantly, tap into your child’s strengths and interests.
If your child loves music, get her to sing. If she loves pictures, ask her to draw. Tapping into her interests is a powerful way to unlock speech and language skills. Verbal lessons don’t have the same power as the rhythm of music or the vividness of shapes and colours. So, connect speech with these kinds of hobbies and you’ll accelerate her learning.
And don’t worry if nothing you’re trying seems to work. Specialists can offer more targeted help tailored to your child’s unique needs.
There’s so much that speech and language therapists can do for children with developmental delays. First, they’ll break down your child’s needs into their tiniest components (e.g., does she mistakenly swap consonants, saying ‘bick’ instead of ‘kick’?). Then they’ll gather these observations to define some of the larger issues. And finally, they’ll create a holistic care plan to help your child. For example, they might start by encouraging her to use symbolic sounds (e.g., ‘beep beep’ for ‘car’) or signs/gestures to communicate – as a precursor to regular speech. And for older children, they might use new learning tools like visual timetables with pictures instead of words.
If you’d like to consult a specialist, The Ed Psych Practice can help.
At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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- Are Social Media & Technology Really That Bad for Teens?
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- Does Your Teen Get Enough Sleep? [Yes, It Matters!]
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