Encouraging First Words: Developing Language Use in Your Child

There are many prerequisite skills that a child develops before speaking their first words – eye contact, comprehension, vocal play and babbling, gesture imitation, etc. However, parents often feel that their child is understanding language at an appropriate level, but not yet using words. To encourage the emergence of first words and word imitation, there are simple strategies that can be used during daily routines or play!

Simple verbal imitation is just a half-step down from imitation of true words. A child is more likely to imitate a set of sounds or words if it is simple and achievable for them; for instance, they are more likely to imitate “woof!” than they are to imitate “butterfly.” If your child is able to imitate gestures (such as waving, pointing, clapping) and play actions (such as making a stuffed animal eat pretend food, stacking blocks and knocking them down), practice with verbal imitation is a great next step to encouraging words. Instead of trying to prompt your child to “Say ‘ball!’” or imitate when you say “Milk,” try using natural modeling of environmental sounds. Environmental sounds can be thought of as words that represent sounds – think animals (moo, quack quack, nay, baa, woof, meow, buzz), vehicles (beep beep, vroom, crash), exclamations (mmm, whoa, yay, uh oh) and other noises you hear that can be words. Don’t worry about prompting your child to “say” these sound words, just try to make any activity as fun as possible!

Outside of environmental sounds, you can also create your own consonant-vowel combination play sounds. Early developing consonants, such as B, P, M, D, N, H, and W, can be used to form small non-words that are attached to a play action. For example, as you make a toy car go up the back of the couch, add “Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo!” Stomp your feet on the ground while you march around saying, “Ba! Ba! Ba!”

Verbal routines are another fantastic way to encourage early verbal imitation. Verbal routines are sets of words that become familiar and predictable, preparing your child to know what should come next. “Ready, set, go” is a favorite among speech-language pathologists – try combining it with a fun activity, saying “Ready, set,…..” and waiting for your child to fill in “go!” “Peek-a-boo” is another simple routine that can be practiced almost anywhere! Verbal routines can also be practiced through songs, and kids usually love music! Some familiar kid’s songs: The Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Wheels on the Bus, If You’re Happy and You Know It, Old McDonald, Five Little Monkeys, Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, and Row Row Row Your Boat.

 Children are expected to imitate consonant-vowel combinations and non-speech sounds by between 9 and 12 months. First words are expected to emerge between 9 and 15 months. If you are concerned about your child’s expressive language skills, contact your local Early Intervention Child and Family Connections or contact us at PlayWorks Therapy, Inc.!

Leanne Sherred, MS, SLP-CF