Strategies to support Late Talkers
Children’s language is developing rapidly in the first few years of life. From cooing and babbling, imitating speech sounds and using gestures, to first words and word combinations, each stage builds upon the other.
The following strategies can support a child’s expected language development and provide guidance for families of children who are not meeting expected expressive language milestones, but are developing in other areas as expected (Late Talkers).
1. Use gestures
Gesturing is one of the first forms of communication and one that we use throughout our lifetime. It’s important not to shy away from using gestures, as they support language development. When a child uses a gesture, such as pointing, they are communicating to others what they want, need, or are interested in. This form of communication can then lead the adult to look toward the object the child is pointing to and provide language to describe it. For example, if a child points to a dog, a parent can then share, “That’s a big dog. Woof woof.” The child communicated their interest through a gesture and the adult was able to expand upon it and provide language to label and describe the object. Gesturing does NOT hinder a child’s ability or motivation to use language, instead it enhances it.
2. Avoid pressuring a child to talk
An effective and evidence based way to support a child’s language development is to model using words and phrases, without the expectation that the child repeat them. With good intentions, an adult may say to a child “What’s this?” while holding an object or prompting the child with “It’s a cow, say cow, say cow.” This type of interaction, however, increases a child’s pressure to talk and makes it challenging for "late talkers" to develop language skills. Instead, adults can model a word and repeat it many times in an interaction. For example, “It's a cow. Moo, says the cow. Cow goes in the barn, Cow comes out of the barn.” The child will hear this same word being repeated and used to refer the same object, building their understanding of the word and likelihood of using it themselves.
3. Use grammatically correct phrases
When modeling words and phrases for a child, particularly one who is a late talker, it’s important to do so with correct grammar. This provides an example for children and encourages the accurate use of words and phrases as the child develops more language.
4. Follow the child’s lead
Children are motivated to play with and talk about preferred objects. Adults can support a child’s language development by taking time to observe a child, allowing the child to explore and find materials that are interesting to them and attending to moments when their child seeks adult input. This input may be a gesture (e.g., pointing), a vocalization (e.g., a grunt), or the child physically bringing the object to an adult. These are moments when a child is seeking adult involvement in their area of interest and inviting the adult to contribute. The adult can then provide language using the aforementioned strategies to support the interaction. The words modeled are going to carry more weight for the child because they have already shown their interest in the material. It’s also important to note that a child may quickly move on to a new object. That is okay and expected! Continue to follow their lead, moving on to a new object/activity with them.
Bredin-Oja, S. L. & Fey, M. (2014). Children’s responses to telegraphic and grammatically complete prompts to imitate. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. https://doi.org/10.1044/1058-0360(2013/12-0155)
Kruythoff‐Broekman, A., Wiefferink, C., Rieffe, C., & Uilenburg, N. (2019). Parent‐implemented Early Language intervention programme for late talkers: Parental communicative behaviour change and child language outcomes at 3 and 4 years of age. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 54(3), 451–464. https://doi.org/10.1111/1460-6984.12451