More Than Words

Okay, maybe this is also the title of a cheesy ballad from a couple of decades ago, but it’s an accurate description of how toddlers use language.

Caregivers often believe they need to teach toddlers, especially those with language delays, lots of words.  They think if the child knows more words, s/he will talk.  The reasoning makes sense. After all, professionals such as pediatricians, speech-language pathologists, and teachers tell them things like, “He’s frustrated because he doesn’t have the words to communicate.”  Or how many times have you heard this one, “How many words does your child use?”  (I’m guilty of asking parents that question – frequently.)  So they fall into the trap of teaching young children lots of words.  They might use flashcards or baby’s first word books or ask them “What’s that?” repeatedly when looking at storybooks.  And the child does in fact learn lots of words.  But is he or she really learning to communicate?  I would say no.

The problem with just teaching children lots of words is that then they don’t know what to do with them.  It’s like buying your child building blocks, lots and lots of building blocks, but never showing him how to put them together or that he can use them to play with other people.  At the end of the day, it’s just a big pile of blocks.

Language is used for a variety of reasons.  Young toddlers use words to:

  • Label people or objects (Daddy, cat)
  • Request action (Up, More juice)
  • Request information (What’s that?)
  • Protest (No, Mine)
  • Greet people (Hi, Bye, Mommy!)
  • Comment on what a conversation partner has said
  • Comment on what other people are doing
  • Talk about everyday routines, both in and out of context

Toddlers who have just been taught lots of words are really good at labeling.  Children with language delays not only need to learn new vocabulary but also when and how to use these words.  In other words, it’s not enough that children be able to name lots of things.  They also need to be able to ask for help, greet people, and take part in a conversation.

Below are some strategies to encourage the use of social language in toddlers and avoid the pitfall of just teaching a lot of words:

  • Instead of always anticipating children’s needs, allow them the opportunity to ask for what they want or need.
  • Give children words to describe their feelings when they are frustrated, upset, or even throwing a tantrum.  Examples: “You are mad right now.”  “You’re upset because you can’t have a cookie.”
  • Talk about not only the things you see but what you see people doing.  This can be done during playtime, while watching TV, or even out of the house.  Examples: “Let’s make the cars zoom.” “Dora and Boots are looking for a ball.” “Those men are digging a hole.”
  • Narrate what you are doing in your daily routines.  Examples: “I’m getting out the Cheerios so we can have breakfast.” “Let’s find our shoes so we can go outside.” “First we wash our hair, then our face, then our shoulders…”

The more children hear adults speaking directly to them in social ways, the more likely they are to begin to use language for these purposes as well.  And eventually, they will turn that pile of blocks into a castle.

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