You are your child’s first and most important teacher. Children develop strong speech and language skills through interactions with caring, loving, and attentive parents and caregivers starting at birth.
Research shows that simple changes in how you talk, read, and play with your child can help develop speech and language skills. Watch this great video by The Hanen Centre: You are the key to your child’s first words.
Language strategies for parents to use during daily routines, play, and reading:
Early Language Stimulation Strategies for Parents and Caregivers
This information is adapted, with permission, from Toronto Public Health.
These strategies can be downloaded as printable handouts by educators through our Educator Portal. Please e-mail our Speech and Language program to receive the login information for this portal.
Face to face
Being face to face helps your child:
- Know that you are paying attention and are interested in what he or she has to “say”.
- Establish and maintain eye contact, an important part of communication.
- Learn to focus on the same thing as you.
- See how you say different sounds and words.
Being face to face helps you:
- Notice what your child is looking at, which is a clue to what they are interested in.
- Observe your child’s facial expressions, so that you know when to stop, when to change activities, and when to keep playing.
How do I get face to face?
- Get down on your child’s physical level (e.g., sitting on small chairs, lying on the floor, raising your child up, etc.).
- Move as your child moves to maintain face to face contact.
- Hold motivating objects (e.g., favourite toys or food) beside your cheek to encourage your child to look at your eyes and mouth.
Follow your child’s lead
Why follow your child’s lead?
- When you talk about what your child is interested in, he or she has an easier time learning language.
- By following your child’s lead, it shows your child that you are interested in what he or she is doing.
How to follow your child’s lead:
- Watch to see what your child is interested in.
- Wait to give your child a chance to choose the toy or activity.
- Join in and talk about what you and your child are doing.
When not to follow your child’s lead:
- Your child is doing something you don’t want him or her to do (e.g., throwing a toy or biting).
- Your child has a short attention span.
Join in and play
By joining in and playing together, you create many opportunities for your child to learn more language and to practice talking with you.
- Instead of insisting that your child play with a toy of your choice, try to watch to see what toys your child finds interesting, and with then play along.
- Instead of watching your child play from the sidelines, try to get your own toy and copy what your child is doing with that toy (if appropriate).
- Instead of telling your child what to do with the toys, get your own toy and show him or her how to play. Pretend play is important for language development so model simple pretend actions (e.g., feeding, combing hair, sleeping, dressing, washing, etc.) for your child.
- Instead of feeling reserved and self-conscious when playing with your child, try to forget about how you look and be playful, you are the best toy in the home! You will get your child’s attention by using an excited voice, fun words (e.g., “oops”, “wee!”, “crash”), and lots of gestures and facial expressions.
Use simple languge
Use short sentences when talking to your child (i.e., one to three words at most). Always stay one step above your child’s current level of communication. For example, you offer your child water, and instead of asking “do you want to have a glass of water?”, try one of the following:
- If your child uses no words, you should use single words, for example “water?”
- If your child uses single words, you should use two-word combinations, for example “want water?”
- If your child uses two-word combinations, you should use three-word combinations, for example “want some water?”
This strategy can be used to help your child understand what you say. Using short phrases helps your child to pick out the important words from the sentence. If your child already has a good understanding of language, using short sentences will make it easier for your child to copy what you are saying.
Labelling (or naming) is a way for your to help your child learn new words. Labelling is useful because it:
- Shows your child that you are responding to his or her focus of interest.
- Teaches your child that you can use a word instead of a gesture.
Here are some suggestions for things to talk about:
- Tell your child names of people and objects that he or she is interested in. For example:
- Talk about what your child is doing. For example:
- Talk about where the objects and people are. For example:
- Use words that are useful (or functional) for your child in every day situations. For example, focus on using words such as help, more, mine or eat, instead of using words like triangle, please, blue, good boy or girl.
Repeat important words
Repeat important words several times in many different situations. For example:
- See how many times you can repeat the word “bubbles” in an activity by combining it with other words: “bubbles”, “pop bubbles”, “more bubbles”, “open bubbles”, “close bubbles”, “blow bubbles”, and “more bubbles”.
- Wait to give your child a chance to react or respond.
- Some children need to hear a word many times before they can understand it and try to say it.
Wait for your child to comment, react, or ask for more with a gesture or a word.
- If your child does not say anything after you have waited five to ten seconds, model the words that he or she should have said. For example:
- Parent: “we are going to put the block (pause).”
- Parent waits five to ten seconds for child to fill in the word “on”.
- Child does not respond.
- Parent “On. Put block on.”
- Parent gives child block to put on top of the block tower.
- Be available to help your child in situations, but wait for your child to request for “help” by making eye contact, bringing the object to you, vocalising, or saying “help”.
Give a reason to communicate and wait
These strategies remove the ability to only answer “yes” or “no” and encourages your child to use the specific name of the object. The strategies also provide a chance for your child to comment or react.
Offer desired objects bit by bit:
- This strategy works well at snack time. Pour only a little water into your child’s cup, so that he or she has to ask you for more several times during snack time.
- Be the keeper of all of the pieces.
- When playing with toys that have multiple pieces (e.g., puzzles, blocks, etc.), keep all of the pieces in a bag or container, encouraging your child to request one piece during each turn.
Offer a choice:
- Show and name each choice item while asking “do you want a car or block?”
- Wait for your child to “tell” you what he or she wants (e.g., by looking, reaching, pointing, vocalizing, or using words).
- Give only the object that was asked for.
- Label the item as you hand it to your child (e.g., “Block, you want the block.”).
Create a silly or unusual situation:
- Do something your child would not expect and wait for a reaction.
- Examples of silly situations:
- Put your child’s pajama pants on his or her head.
- Put both of your child’s socks on the same foot.
- Start happily bathing your child in a bathtub that has no water in it.
- Start to pour your child’s water but “forget” the cup.
Comment rather than asking questions
We often ask too many questions and this stops conversation instead of keeping it going. Try to:
- Ask fewer questions.
- Turn a question into a comment:
- Instead of asking a question, talk about what you or your child is doing.
- Instead of asking “is this car going up?”, you could say “car goes up.”
- Label new words instead of testing whether your child knows the word.
- Instead of asking “what’s that?” or “say apple”, you could say “look, apple, yummy apple.”
- Ask questions when you really need to find out information (e.g., “where are mommy’s keys?”).
- Using too many questions provides fewer opportunities for your child to imitate words.
Turn taking is an important skill for your child to learn. At first, children learn to take turns in play. Later, children understand how to take turns “talking” in interactions. Turn taking helps increase a child’s attention span and promotes eye contact.
Take turns by:
- Setting a limited number of turns that you expect your child to take at first (e.g., place two blocks on the tower before he or she leaves).
- Labelling turns form your child’s perspective (e.g., “my turn” and “mommy’s turn”).
- Using phrases such as, “one more block” and “blocks are all done”.
- Increasing the number of turns you expect your child to take, based on how he or she is responding to the activity.
- Taking your turn quickly to keep your child’s interest.
|Activity||Making it interactive||Using words to label|
|Ball||Play catch, roll back and forth, throw a ball in a box.||Ball, throw, in, bounce, catch|
|Blocks||Build a towner together, take the blocks off one at a time.||Block, on, off, fall down|
|Puzzle||Put together a puzzle once piece at a time||Animal or object names on puzzle piece, more, put in, take out|
Say what you think your child means
If your child does not use words, or you don’t understand what was said, say it as your child would if he or she could.
Give your child a good, clear model of how the words should sound, without calling attention to the error. For example:
- Child: “ba”
- Parent: “Bird, yes there is a bird.”
Give your child the words for sounds or gestures that he or she uses. For example:
- Child: reaches for water and grunts “ah-ah”
- Parent: interprets that child wanting water and says, “Water. Daddy water.” Parent then pours child water.
- Child: screams and begins to cry when parent presents book at bed time.
- Parent: interprets that child does not want to read a book and says, “no, no book!” Parent offers child a different book to read or another nighttime activity.
Sharing a book
When sharing a book:
- Allow your child to choose the book.
- Give your child as much time as he or she needs to look at the pictures.
- Join in with sounds, actions, or words.
Some suggestions when reading a book:
- Sit face to face with your child with the book facing toward him or her.
- Use books with lots of pictures.
- Label the pictures (e.g., “I see a ball.” Pause and wait for your child to take their turn).
- Keep the story simple, make up the words to the story, or change them.
- Use an excited voice, make sounds and special voices to go with the story.
- Leave out familiar words or parts of the story for your child to fill in (e.g., “once there was a bear who loved (fill in the blank).”)
- Talk about the cause of events (Why? How come?)
- Enjoy and share that special joy of stories with your child.
Take advantage of daily routines and add language. This is a good opportunity to:
- Label important actions and objects.
- Repeat key words.
- Give your child a reason to communicate.
- Take turns together.
Set up: label the routine (e.g., getting dressed). Mark each step, for example, “shirt on”, “pants on”, or “socks on”:
- Hold up pants and wait for your child to say or do something.
- Take turns choosing what to put on next.
- Label the end of a routine (e.g., “all finished”).
Other examples of daily routines:
- Bath time
- Bed time
- Meal time
- Play time
Imitate and add
Imitation will motivate and encourage your child to interact with you. Imitation shows your child that you are interested in what he or she is doing, and also encourages him or her to imitate you back.
Some suggestions for imitating your child are:
- Follow your child’s lead by imitating his or her body movements and facial expressions.
- Try imitating with another toy rather than expecting your child to share his or her toy. Imitate what your child says and make corrections. For example:
- Child: “Ded car.”
- Parent: “Yes, red car.”
- Imitate and add one or two more words. For example:
- Child: “Put baby.”
- Parent: “Put baby on table.”
- Add new ideas to what your child says. For example:
- Child: “Doggie”
- Parent: “Doggie says woof, woof.”
Talking and reading tips
Find many short videos and e-learning modules to learn fun talking and reading tips.
Videos and E-learning
- Sounds and Gestures: Building blocks for your child’s first words
- Conversations pave the way for first words
- Playing with Language: Part 1
- Playing with Language: Part 2
- Playing with Language: Part 3
- StoryTalk One: Ten Steps to Child Literacy
- StoryTalk Two: The Zookeeper’s Sleepers
- Being the Bridge: Building Language While You Wait
(Webinar for parents of newborn children to 2 ½ years of age)
- The Power of Play: Creating Opportunities for Speech & Language Development
(Webinar for parents of preschoolers ages 2 ½ to 4)
- E-learning modules from First Words Preschool Speech and language Program (Ottawa region)
- Module 1: Act early. Know the signs
- Module 2: What is First Words?
- Module 3: Ages and Stages: Communication Development from Birth to 48 Months
- Module 4: Strategies to Help Communication Grow
- Module 5: Books, Language and Literacy
- Module 6: Learning More than One Language
- Module 7: The impact of screen time on language development
- Module 8: Child and Youth Screen Time presentation by Dr. Michael Cheng, Child Psychiatrist
Communicating with babies, toddlers and preschoolers
Communicating with babies
In the first year of life, babies learn from watching your face and listening to your voice. The more you talk, sing, play, and read with them, the more sounds and words they will learn.
Tips for helping your baby develop speech and language skills:
- Speak to your baby face-to-face so they can watch your face and interact with you more easily.
- Make silly sounds with your baby.
- Follow you baby’s lead and repeat sounds and babble.
- Sing and talk throughout daily routines.
- Name familiar objects.
- Avoid the use of screen time.
- Read brightly coloured books with pictures your baby sees every day (e.g., food, animals, and clothing).
Young children develop speech, language, and literacy skills through fun and caring interactions with adults and caregivers. Learning to talk can be a frustrating time for toddlers as they move from using gestures, like pointing, to sounds and words. Try to wait patiently when toddlers try saying new words, sounds, or gestures to communicate their message.
Tips for helping your toddler develop speech and language skills:
- Avoid the use of screen time.
- Wait patiently for your child to communicate.
- Slow down and listen.
- Encourage play with other children.
- Give simple directions.
- Use real words, not baby talk.
- Add gestures or signs to help emphasize words.
- Share reading time and talk about the pictures.
- Use new and interesting words and explain what the words mean.
When children are between three and five years of age, they go through tremendous growth and change in their speech and language skills. They learn about the world around them and how to communicate with adults and other children.
Tips for helping your preschooler develop speech and language skills:
- Act as a tour guide by describing what is happening throughout the day.
- Have fun telling stories about past events or re-telling a favourite book.
- Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with yes or no. Try using how, why, and I wonder as open-ended starters.
- Make up rhymes and silly songs using familiar tunes to help your child learn new words.
- Read lots of books with new and interesting words. Explain what the new words mean and how to use them. Repeat these words often.
- Encourage your child to choose a book that interests them.
- Encourage your child to print or scribble.
- Choose books with large, clear print with words or phrases that are repeated. Point out print as you read.
- Model correct grammar (e.g., if your child says, he jump then you say, yes, he jumped).
- Give many opportunities for play with other children.
Limit screen time
Limit screen time with all children and avoid the use of screen time with very young children. The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that children under two years of age have no screen time exposure to televisions, tablets, and smart phones. Children develop speech and language skills best through direct interactions with caring, loving, and attentive parents and caregivers.
Do you have concerns about other areas of your child’s development?
- Complete the Early Years Check In Tool to identify other needs or concerns you may have about your child, including social, emotional, language, movement, thinking, and learning skills.
- Visit the Play & Learn site to find activities to do with your child to help them develop their skills.
- Sign up for the My Growing Child email newsletters to receive activities you can do with our child at home to help them improve their skills.
If you have identified other developmental concerns, the SmartStart Hub can help you with next steps.
Call 613-544-3400, ext. 2078 or visit our SmartStart Hub page for more information.
To make a referral to Early Expressions Preschool Speech and Language program, complete our online referral form.
If you are unsure if a referral is needed, please review Communication Milestones for your child’s age.
Referrals can also be made by phone at 613-544-3400 ext 3175 and press 3 (toll free 1-855-544-3400 ext 3175 and press 3).
Reprinted with the permission of KFL&A Public Health.