Speech and language delay is common, impacting about 5% of kids under age 17. When toddlers are first learning to speak, there’s a wide range in what’s considered typical for speech and language development. The variation in development can create uncertainty for parents who are looking for tips to help their toddler with speech delay. This article covers four ways parents can help support toddlers who are learning to talk.
1. Create Opportunities for Communication
One way parents can help toddlers with speech delay is to help organize their environment to encourage communication. Often, as parents, we want to help minimize stress for our kids and learn to anticipate their wants and needs. But, we need to be mindful that sometimes we need to create incentives to help toddlers express themselves.
Keep desired toys out of reach
One easy way to do this is by using storage bins or shelves that require your child to ask you for help to get what they want. Clear bins with lids are a great way to control the toys while also making them visible. Toddlers may start by reaching for their bins. Helping your toddler point and modeling asking for “toys please” can help them start learning to request.
If you like your child to be able to practice independence and access toys freely, a good compromise can be to cycle through a specific and highly desired toy keep in view but out of reach.
Give two choices for snacks, activities, games, and toys
Another way to help toddlers boost their speech and language skills is by giving them a choice between two desired activities or toys. Present each of the two choices and model the name for both. This helps by giving the children a model of the names of the objects and provides them with a chance to communicate. They can point to the choice they want, or try to say the name. How challenging you make the task depends on how far along they are with their skills. If they struggle to say any words, accept a point or sign as a meaningful gesture. If they’re saying some words but you want to expand the vocabulary of your child, giving options can be a good way to expand their vocabulary by encouraging them to say new words.
2. Reinforce Any Speech Attempts and Make it Fun
It’s human nature to shy away from things that don’t feel fun or rewarding to us. As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I’ve seen young kids get frustrated by their challenges communicating, which can start a cycle of avoiding communication. As adults, we can encourage progress with lots of positive reinforcement for communication attempts.
If your child expresses something that’s unclear, reinforce the attempt and help recast their production by saying things like “you’re right, that is your car!” Make it fun and use environmental sounds like “psh” for planes flying and “bbbbb” for cars driving. Showing kids how you can play with sounds makes learning to talk a game and removes some of the burden from trying to communicate clearly all the time. Reading books can be another fun way to help kids interact with words, sounds, and language. Use silly voices and help make the characters come to life for kids.
Give kids a wide variety of methods to communicate in order to help reduce frustration. The first steps to learning language involves understanding that we can use symbols to refer to things in the world. Using sign language, gestures, or picture systems, can all be good ways to encourage young kids to communicate while reducing the effort needed from them to attempt to speak. Research has shown that sign and Alternative/Augmentative communication devices do NOT slow down oral language development. In fact, by giving kids access to communication, we can jump start their oral language as well.
3. Help Toddlers Learn to Hear the Difference Between Speech Sounds
It’s common for young kids to switch sounds when they’re learning to speak. For example, a common error is swapping a /b/ for /f/. This error typically resolves when kids are around 3 or 4 years of age. We can help young kids learn the difference between the two sounds by encouraging them to listen to the difference between two words like “ball” and “fall.”
Modeling sets of pairs of words like this can help kids start to hear the difference, and help them realize the importance of trying to make this difference in their own speech.
4. Remember that Toddler's Speech Progress Takes Time
Kids are learning to talk from the time they’re born until around 8 or 9 years of age, when their speech sound system is mostly mature. People of all ages can continue to expand their vocabulary, and for many people, we gain reading and language skills throughout our school years. For those who have speech or language challenges, learning these skills may extend into later years as well. It’s never to late to learn!
When we’re working with toddlers to help support speech or language skills, we can focus on taking the small steps needed to help lay the foundation for great communication skills in the future. Toddlers in particular are learning SO much every day. It’s not uncommon to see some phases of rapid progress followed by some slower progress. Sometimes kids are focused on learning other skills and speech and language takes the back burner. Other times, we’re thrilled by progress in leaps and bounds. The important thing is to stay consistent in providing opportunities for communication, and keeping communication attempts fun and meaningful for kids. In this way, progress will continue.
If progress seems to halt all together for a few months, or if you see a true regression in skills, it’s a good idea to ask for some professional help. We don’t want to miss out on opportunities to help support kids and sometimes there can be medical or health related challenges that need to be sorted out. Other times, kids may need a different type of intervention, or more focused, intensive support to boost speech and language skills.
If you’re unsure of where to start, you can find lots of resources on speech and language development through the American Speech Language Hearing Association website. Verboso also offers free screenings through our teletherapy services. Talking with a speech-language pathologist about your concerns can provide you with some great individualized tips for helping your toddler with speech delay!