Sunday, July 9, 2017

Talk to Your Toddler…Just Not in Toddler Talk!

I’ve written a lot about the power of talking to your toddler.  I’ve shared how techniques such as parallel talk & self talk and expansion & extension can be used to help your child’s language grow. I’ve discussed how indirect language facilitation has been proven to be an effective means of language intervention for toddlers and preschoolers and how parents are every bit as able to provide this type of language-rich environment for their child as speech-language pathologists are.  And I’ve explained how the language you use around your toddler and preschooler should be just a bit above his/her current language level. But, I haven’t yet discussed some of the emerging evidence about telegraphic speech - and how that evidence suggests we should be careful about how toddler-like we make our sentences when we talk to our toddlers.  

Telegraphic speech occurs when we speak like we would in, well, a telegraph.  In other words, we omit the “small” words that make a sentence grammatically correct and include only the important words - mainly nouns and verbs.  Examples of telegraphic speech include: “put in box” “doggie run” or “mommy feed baby” (Venker & Stronach, 2017). In each of these utterances, the grammatical aspects of the sentence were left out. 

It is important to keep our language simple when talking to toddlers. The trick, then, is keeping our language simple, but grammatically correct. It’s not that we have to, or should, use full sentences with toddlers all the time. Instead, we can choose to either use single words, short phrases, or what are called grammatically simplified utterances.  Here are some examples:

DO use a single word: cat
DO use short but grammatically correct phrases: nice cat
DO use short but grammatically correct sentences: The cat is running.
DON’T use telegraphic speech: cat run

DO use a single word: door
DO use short but grammatically correct phrases: brown door
DO use short but grammatically correct sentences: Open the door
DON’T use telegraphic speech: open door

DO use a single word: daddy
DO use short but grammatically correct sentences: Daddy’s eating
DO use short but grammatically correct sentences: Daddy’s eating breakfast
DON’T use telegraphic speech: daddy eat breakfast

Why would we be inclined to use telegraphic speech at all? Many of us (myself included) might mistakenly believe that it’s easier for a child to imitate telegraphic speech, especially when they are just starting to use two-word phrases. A child’s use of telegraphic speech is totally normal and actually a really important stage of language development. Around 18 months, children learn that they can create two-word phrases (mommy go; puppy drink; more milk); in doing so, they’ve begun to harness the true power of language.  When we combine words into phrases and sentences, we create meaning that the words by themselves can’t convey. And when we learn that we can do this, the possibilities are endless!  Because that move into two-word phrases is so important and very normal, adults might choose to model those phrases for children, hoping that the child will imitate those two-word phrases. I know that I’ve done this as a pediatric SLP. However, recent research suggests that children are no more likely to imitate telegraphic speech than they are to imitate grammatically simplified utterances (Bredin-Oja, S., & Fey, M., 2014).

So why is it important to avoid telegraphic speech? Mainly because children learn language by hearing language.  One of their main jobs during early language development is to figure out the rules that apply to language that they are learning.  When, for example, do we put “the” before a noun and when do we put “a” before a noun? When do we put “ing” on a word instead of “ed” (walking vs. walked)? Every language has these rules and every new language learner has to figure them out.  Children do that by primarily by listening (which, I might add, is amazing. But I digress...)  So, the theory goes, if we use telegraphic speech, we’re taking away essential input that children need to learn the grammatical aspects of language.

Recent research seems to support this theory, especially for children who struggle to learn language.  One recent meta-analysis (a review of a bunch of studies) looked at parent-child interactions of children with language delays or disorders.  The researchers found that parents who used more grammatically complex utterances with their children had children with more positive language outcomes (Sandback, & Yoder, 2016).   This was especially true if the children had an autism spectrum disorder (Sandback, & Yoder, 2016; Venker et. al 2015).    

It’s worth noting that not all experts in the field agree with this opinion (Van Kleet et al., 2010). It’s also really important to note that the research I discussed above has been completed on children who struggle to learn language, not typically developing children.  At this point, I’m not aware of research that has looked at the impact of telegraphic speech on children who are learning language well all on their own.  However, the rationale behind the recommendation to avoid use of telegraphic speech as an adult might still apply to typically developing children: children need to hear the grammatical aspects of language to learn those elements!  So, whether your child is developing typically, is a late talker, or is a child who struggles more significantly with language learning, my suggestion would be this: Talk to your toddler! Just maybe not in toddler talk.  

Bredin-Oja, S., & Fey, M. (2014). Children’s responses to telegraphic and grammatically complete prompts to imitate. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 23, 15–26.

Sandback, M., & Yoder, P. (2016).  The Association Between Parental Mean Length of Utterances and Language Outcomes in Children with Disabilities: A Correlational Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, (25): 240-251.

Van Kleet, A., Schwarz, A., Fey, M. Kaiser, A., Miller, J. & Weitzman, E. (2010) Should we use telegraphic or grammatical input in the early stages of language development with children who have language impairments? A meta-anlaysis of the research and expert opinion. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 19 (1): 3-21.

Venker, C., Bolt, D., Meyer, A., Sindberg., H. Ellis Weismer, S. Tager-Flusberg, H. (2015).  Parent Telegraphic Speech Use and Spoken Language in Preschoolers With ASD. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, December 2015, Vol. 58, 1733-1746

Venker, C., Stronach, S. (2017). When Is Simplifed too….Simple? The ASHA Leader, 22, 42-47. Retrieved from:

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Using Recasts with Toddlers & Preschoolers - At

Speech Science

As a pediatric speech-language pathologist and Clinical Instructor, I'm always on the hunt for new resources that provide high-quality, accessible information about speech and language therapy. I recently found a new such resource: SpeechScience. The SLPeeps over at SpeechScience are striving to create a website that is full of "accessible, evidence-based information intended to be available to everyone: Clinicians, educators, parents, and anyone else with the need to learn more about communication sciences and disorders."  If you've been following my blog for any length of time, you'll immediately recognize that this jives really well with the goal of ChildTalk: to provide high-quality information about speech and language in a readable way.  Good stuff! 

I like SpeechScience's mission so much that I'll be contributing blog posts about pediatric speech & language and family-centered care. You can find my first blog post there right now. It's all about the use of recasts with toddlers and preschoolers - when to use recasts, for what purpose, how often, and with whom.  You can access it here: 
The Use of Recasts with Toddlers and Preschoolers.  Happy Reading! 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Simple Activities for Speech and Language: Hidden Colors

I’m a huge fan of using simple activities for working on speech and language. Simple, because I’m a working mom with lots on her plate who just doesn’t have time for planning for and buying materials for more complex crafts and activities - either at home or at work. And activities, because speech and language are best promoted inside activities that are meaningful and motivating to children!

I recently came across an interesting simple activity on Pinterest: Hidden Colors. Thanks to Busy Toddler for this idea! Hidden Colors is super simple because it contains exactly three ingredients: baking soda, vinegar and food coloring.  Easy peasy! I've since used this activity to entertain my own daughter and to work on building speech and language during my speech-language sessions with preschoolers.
Hidden Colors involves a slight twist on the classic baking soda and vinegar volcanoes.  Instead of building a volcano and making it explode, baking soda is sprinkled into the cups of a muffin tin. Before sprinkling the baking soda into the cups, though, drops of food coloring are hidden underneath the baking soda.  Then, when your kiddo pours vinegar into the cup, it not only fizzes and foams (which is fun in and of itself), but a color is revealed.  Super simple, as promised, and super fun!

The key to success with this activity lies in making sure you don’t use very much baking soda in the cup of the muffin tin. The first time my daughter and I tried this, I dumped way too much baking soda in the cup and it really didn’t do much except for fizz - no color at all. The second time around, I put 3-4 drops of food coloring in each muffin tin and poured in just enough baking soda to cover the food coloring.  Lots of color this time around!

So how would you use this activity for promoting speech and language? In lots of ways!

If you have a toddler who is just starting to talk, you can build his vocabulary by using parallel talk and self talk to describe your actions using simple verbs, nouns and concept words: pour, in, bubble, wet, more, wow! Repeat these words over and over as you do the actions.  You can also use expansion to extend your toddler's words into short phrases; if he says, “bubbles,” you can say “red bubbles!” or “blue bubbles” “more bubbles” and “the bubbles are gone! This type of indirect language facilitation is known to be very effective in helping grow a child’s language.  You can also set up communication temptations by pouring the vinegar into one of the cups, ooohing and ahhhing as it fizzes and foams. Then, when the action is done, put the cap on the vinegar and just wait! When your child does something to indicate he/she wants more, you can ask her to say “bubble” or “more” or “pour” if she will imitate your words, or help her use sign language if she’ll let you help her sign.  

If you have 2-3 year old who is using short, but grammatically incorrect utterances, you can use recasts to fill in the gap of her words.  For example, if she says “bubble blue,” you can say, “The bubbles are blue!”  Research has found that using recasts can be a powerful ways to help children to build their grammar (or syntax) skills.

Children really start to learn their colors during the 2-4 year old age range, too, so you can ask your child to tell you what colors emerged from the cup.  If she struggles, you can use forced choice (are the bubbles blue or are they red?) or just go back to using parallel talk and self talk to surround him/her with the language to help her learn colors. The more she hears you say the names of colors, the more likely she will be to say those colors!

If you have a 3-5 year old, you can work on building more complex language.  Around this time in development, children start using conjunctions such as “and” and “if” in their sentences.  You can use these conjunctions to make longer sentences that describe what you’re doing. For example, “Let’s pour the vinegar in and see what color we find!”  During this age range, children also begin to master past tense verbs, so you can use this verb tense frequently (“I poured the vinegar!” “The bubbles turned blue!”).

During the preschool years, you can also also start working the mental state verbs (think, know, remember, hope) that go along with theory of mind.  For example, before pouring the vinegar into the baking soda, you can each predict the color that will emerge, using the word “think” (“I think it’s going to be blue!”).  Then, after the fizzing has ended, talk about what you thought and how it compared to reality (“I thought it would be blue, but it turned red!”). As an additional bonus, this type of sentence also has the conjunctions I just described above! You can also take pictures of each step of the activity; review them with your kiddo and describe what happened in each step.  Later, have him tell the story to someone else who didn't watch the activity. All of this helps children begin to separate their thoughts from both the actual events and the thoughts of others; it also gives them practice using language to talk about things that have already happened - something that becomes really important during the preschool and early elementary years.

One easy activity, three simple ingredients, and endless speech and language possibilities!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Power of Responding to Your Baby

Most of the posts on this blog so far have been geared toward helping children talk.  This one is, too (after all, why else would it be on a blog called “Child Talk”?!), but with a slightly different twist.  In this post, we’re delving into the world of infant sounds and parent responses to those sounds. Why? Because long before children say their first words, they’re learning all about how the world of speech and language works. And it turns out that mothers play a big part in this process. (I’ll mention here that dads play a big part, too, of course! It’s just that most of the research has to do with moms.  Sorry, dads!) 

One important strategy for helping infants eventually learn the power of words is called contingent vocal imitation, which is a fancy title for a really simple concept. This strategy is all about what parents do in response to their infants’ vocalizations. In other words, when a child coos (makes those sweet, soft vowel sounds), babbles (“bababa” or “badagaba”), or makes any noise at all, what do parents do in response to these sounds?  It turns out that if parents imitate their baby’s sounds, their baby will then make more sounds.  Specifically, their baby is likely to vocalize more often (Pelaez, M., Virues-Ortega, J., & Gewirtz, J., 2011; Dunst, Gorman & Hamly, 2010). This is important because when a baby vocalizes more frequently, people respond more. When people respond more….(you guessed it)...babies vocalize more! In the process, infants learn that their vocalizations have a huge impact on the world around them. They come to understand that they can use sounds to communicate with others. And, boom, language emerges.

Imitation of your baby’s sounds isn’t the only option for responding to his vocalizations, though.  You can also respond by simply acknowledging that he made a noise (“mmm hmmm”), by labeling what he sees (“a dog!”), by commenting on some aspect of what he is looking at (“it’s so pretty!”) or by explaining what he wants (“you want your blanket!”).  Researchers have found that a mom’s “sensitive” responses to her infant’s vocalizations are related to increases in infant vocalizations at 8-14 months of age and to an increased use of words and gestures at 15 months (Gros-Louis, West, & King, 2014). “Sensitive” is defined as acknowledging an infant vocalization in a way that is directly connected to whatever the infant was seeing or doing when he made a sound.  It’s contrasted with a “redirective” approach in which mothers essentially change the topic by directing their infant to look at or pay attention to something else.  

So, the bottom line is this: Listen to your infant! When she vocalizes, respond!  If she’s on the younger side (0-6 months), imitate her sounds - she might just imitate right back.  Even if she doesn’t, she’s likely to vocalize more across time - which gives you more opportunity to respond and gives her increased opportunities to understand that her sounds have an impact on her world.  If she’s older (6-12 months or so), you can still imitate her sounds, but you might also pay close attention to what she’s looking at and respond to that (“Oh, a puppy!” or “It’s so pretty!’ or “You want your bottle?”).  The key is in responding to your infant, rather than directing her to look at things or requiring her to make sounds upon your command. Instead: Wait. Watch. Listen. Respond.  

If this all this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written about similar concepts before, as it relates to using self talk and parallel talk with toddlers. And if you think you’re already doing this, you probably are! Much of the time, these strategies come pretty naturally to parents.  Now, though, you know why it’s such a powerful thing to do.  Happy babbling!

Dunst, C. J., Gorman, E., Hamby, D. W. (2010). Effects of adult verbal and vocal contingent responsiveness on increases in infant vocalizations.  CELL Reviews, 3, 1-11. 

Gros-Louis, J., West, M, & King, A. (2014). Maternal responsiveness and the development of directed vocalizing in social interactions. Infancy, 19 (4), 285-408

Pelaez, M., Virues-Ortega, J., Gewirtz, J. (2011). Reinforcement of Vocalizations through Contingent Vocal Imitation.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 33-40