Monday, March 4, 2013

Using Expansion and Extension To Grow Your Child's Language

As a pediatric speech-language therapist, I often use indirect language facilitation strategies to help grow a child's language. I've written about these strategies before, such as when I wrote about how the way you talk to your child impacts his language learning and when I described how to use self-talk and parallel talk.

This time around, I''m pulling out a couple more indirect language facilitation strategies that parents can put in their language-boosting tool box: expansion and extension. These both fall under the category of "indirect language facilitation" because they are built around a child's utterance (what the child says) and because they do not require a response from the child.  This differs from strategies
that are based on the principles of applied behavioral analysis (ABA).  ABA techniques usually involve a specific, targeted response from the child that is prompted or elicited, required, and reinforced. (As a slight aside, I certainly think that both child-directed/indirect language facilitation techniques AND clinician-directed/ABA strategies can be- and often should be - used together.  And, there is a time and a place where each is more effective than the other. But that's a different post all together).

Expansion and extension are very similar. The most important part of these techniques is that the parent uses them to respond to the child.  This requires that a child initiate (start) an interaction somehow.  The child might point, or vocalize, or say a word .... anything that starts an interaction. Then a parent either expands on or extends what the child has to say.

In my experience in working with parents, the hardest part about these strategies is that they require parents to wait.  Often, when we are in teaching mode, we are inclined to instruct- to direct a child,  to tell a child what to do or how to do it.  Again, there is most definitely a place for this (heaven knows I have directed many children to do many things in my career).  There also need to be times, however, when we respond to a child's language instead of directing it. And that's where expansion and extension come in.

So how are they different? When we EXPAND a child's utterance, we keep the child's word order the same and expand it just slightly to make it a bit longer and/or more grammatically correct.   When we EXTEND a child's utterance, we simply respond to the child's utterance in a conversational way, providing a bit of new information that is related to what the child had to say.

So, if a child says, "Puppy outside...."

We can expand this utterance by saying, "Puppy IS outside".  We've expanded because we've kept his word order the same (puppy is the first word, outside is the second- and we haven't changed this), but we've made it just a bit longer (in this case we made it just one word longer) and more grammatically correct (in this case we add in the 'contractible copula' grammatical morpheme- the fancy word for is). I coach parents to expand their child's utterance just by just one or two words. This makes the newly expanded phrase a perfect match for the child - it's not too simple because it's longer and more complex than what the child said, but it's not so tough that it loses meaning for the child. 

Back to the "Puppy outside" phrase. If we choose not to expand it...

We can extend this utterance instead by saying, "He's barking."  In this case, we've responded to the child's utterance and we've stayed on the same topic (the puppy who is outside) but now we've added new information.  We've extended the conversation by adding a bit more information. This is the key to extension.

Expansion and extension seem to work best with toddlers and young preschoolers, or children whose language levels match those of a typical toddler or young preschooler. These children often imitate the newly expanded or extended utterances, which we think helps them to grow their language.  Plus, because we are responding to the child's lead, we are tapping into whatever is interesting to the child at the moment, making our input (the language they hear) that much more salient, or pronounced, so that children are that much more likely to learn from it.

Research seems to indicate that many children learn language faster when their parents use more conversational language-learning strategies like expansion and extension, as compared to parents who are more directive with their children.  And use of these techniques is also linked to longer utterances in children - in other words, children who are exposed to these types of responsive language facilitation techniques seem to use longer sentences overall.  Seems like a good deal to me!

Looking for more strategies and activities to help your child learn speech and language? 


  1. So true! I love using expansions and extensions too! These are two techniques that parents tend to under utilize. As SLPs we have to encourage them because expanding and extending is so effective at increasing longer and more meaningful utterances.

    1. Kim - Agreed! :) Thanks for stopping by. -Becca

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  4. Thanks for sharing, my daughter will be 20 mos this month, but she only says about 10 words, but she understand much more. She won't turn head when called by her name, but she knows when I said no ( except for climbing, she ignored the no). The only sentence she said is "hi momma".

    She ever said more words like lion, what's up, jump, there, grandma (is baby language). But she dropped them and somehow like forget about them.

    Do you think my dd need theraphy or wait till she's 2?

  5. Great question. I know it's hard to know what to do as a mom. If in doubt, I'd recommend talking to your pediatrician and/or seeking out an evaluation. It may be nothing, but I always recommend an evaluation if a child isn't turning her head to her name and if a little one lost words that he/she said. My best to you!