questionI am a teacher’s assistant in a Toddler (1-2 years old) classroom. I have a student who is 2 years 1 month (he is about to move to the Two Year Old room where I work) who is not talking very much. He babbles, and talks in his own language, but can say some words (like blue, go, no, and stop). I know he can hear some of what I say, because I have tried singing a favorite song of his, and he will do the motions without me having to model them for him. I was curious if you had any suggestions on how to help him communicate (he knows some signs, but doesn’t always use them), or how we can help him in any other way.  Thank you.

answerThanks so much for your question. Congratulations! It sounds as if you are already doing many things to facilitate this child’s communication. While some may think that that language skills need to be “taught” to young children, this is simply not true. The best way to facilitate language development in infants and toddlers requires no props or expensive equipment. Language can be promoted by simply talking with children during everyday activities including routine care and play. Too often early childhood professionals are busy with what needs to be done in the classroom like changing diapers, preparing for lunch and picking up toys. When children try to engage us in conversation we might be tempted to halfway listen, give a short response, and get on with other responsibilities. People who study the nature of adult/child interaction tell us that adults tend to talk at children, not with them. Adults tend to give directives such as “Pick up your toys”; “Wash your hands”; and “Come with me.” However, children need two-way communication with turn taking, real talking, and real listening. They need us to get on their physical level, make eye contact, give undivided attention, and have real involved conversations with them. Does it matter how much you talk with an infant or toddler, sing, and look at picture books together?  YES! Research shows that the number and quality of the conversations that adults have with infants and toddlers directly affects how they learn to talk. The number of total words and different words that children hear daily, the number of conversations, and positive affirmations are all related to infants’ and toddlers’ language development.

Following are a few easy-to-do strategies that infant toddler care teachers can use to promote communication development:

  • Read and look at books together. Toddlers love to look at books with adults who talk about the pictures. While they are learning new words every day, toddlers’ speaking vocabularies are still limited. However, they can understand a great deal of the spoken language they are not yet able to produce. Therefore, adults can facilitate language growth as they talk with the toddler while “reading.” Books that picture common objects and everyday events are particularly appealing.
  • Be responsive and talkative during outdoor play. Outings, even simple walks in the grass, open up possibilities for learning new words and concepts. Talk about the rough bark, soft grass, tickly ant, hungry birds, and splashy puddles. Take advantage of every opportunity to engage in conversations about the child’s world because each new adventure stimulates language learning.
  • Talk and play often with the child, using a rich and varied vocabulary. Arrange the environment with materials and toys that encourage talk. Dramatic play gives children many opportunities to hear and use language. Try placing telephones in several different centers. Add little people to the toy car collection. Place attractive puppets in a “puppet theatre” made from an old gutted TV cabinet. Give dolls baths in the water table. Make stick puppets, bag puppets, and sock puppets. Change the dramatic play area frequently and help children learn to use the special vocabulary in different settings such as a shoe store, gas station, campground, stuffed animal clinic, pizza parlor, workout gym, etc. Make language props like a pretend microphone, walkie talkie, cordless phone, or megaphone. Invite children to talk or sing with a karaoke machine or tape recorder. Play back taped “mystery” voices of the children in the classroom and guess which friend was speaking. 
  • Use self-talk and parallel talk. Self-talk is talk that adults use to describe what they are doing while with the infant or toddler. For example, a teacher who is diapering a baby might say, “I’m getting your diaper. Now I’m lifting your feet. I’m putting the clean diaper on. Now we’re finished.” Parallel talk occurs when an adult talks about what a child is doing. For example, while the child is eating the adult might say, “Mmm, you’re eating your peas. Let’s scoop the peas with your spoon like this” while showing the child how to scoop the peas. These strategies tie language to an act or object manipulation, making words come alive and giving meaning for the child.
  • Expand vocabulary by singing simple songs and playing instrumental music and inviting children to slither, leap, or waddle. Use fun, big words like exhausted, rotate, hilarious, enormous, and whirl. Set up an obstacle course and entice children to move under, beside, over, through, between, or around. Move high, low, quickly, or slowly. Use strong movements like gliding, sliding, stomping, marching, tiptoeing, galloping, lunging, twisting, twirling, and flopping.

By providing a language rich environment and engaging in many responsive give-and-take conversations, you should see a tremendous growth in this child’s communication skills– as well as all of the other children in your class. Have fun with it and keep up the good work!