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5 Expert-Backed Tips to Improve Your Toddler's Speech Development

Here are five useful tips from experts to get your toddler talking.
PHOTO BYNathan Put-Fernandez/Flickr

Your little one’s first real sentence, even if it’s just “Mama, milk please,” is always a cause for celebration. It’s a big step when a toddler can already string words together to express his wants, feelings, and needs. 

In a commentary published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, Harvard Graduate School of Education literacy expert Meredith Rowe and Boston Medical Center pediatrician Barry Zuckerman wrote that the toddler years are the period when your child’s verbal and cognitive skills get a boost in development. It's also the time when your attention, nurture, and care will have an enormous impact on your child's speech development. Here are tips to get your toddler talking: 

1. Ask more “wh-” questions.
Match your tot’s expanding mind and curiosity by “providing more challenging conversations,” said Rowe and Zuckerman. At this age, you can already start asking your child questions beginning with “what,” ”who,” and “where.” Since she knows some words now, she will be more than capable (and willing!) to answer you. Plus, the back-and-forth communication helps her learn how to take turns in conversation as well.

Try the following whenever you can. During bedtime, ask, “What book do you want to read?” Then while reading aloud, ask her questions related to the story. (“Where is bunny hiding?”). Remember to give your child ample time to respond. Leave a 10-second gap and if she doesn’t reply, answer the question yourself. (“Bunny is hiding in the hole!”)

2. Keep talking to your child in both Filipino and English. 
Bilingual parents shouldn’t be afraid to speak to their children in both their native tongue and their acquired second language (for Pinoys, it is likely English), said Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative and professor at Harvard University. 

Ferguson explained that bilingual parents might be afraid that their native language will interfere with their child learning English. “It will not,” he said. “You need to speak to them a lot no matter what your home language is because the basic patterns in human language that they're picking up will facilitate their language acquisition.” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stresses that bilingual kids will become proficient in the languages they are taught young by the time they're 5 years old. Studies have also shown that there are benefits of exposing children to two languages, and it includes being able to learn new words more effectively. 

3. Widen your vocabulary. 
Don’t be afraid to use more “difficult” words when talking to your child. Ferguson pointed out the importance of the diversity of words a toddler is exposed to at home. He wrote in a review of past studies, “Research has uncovered strong links between children’s home language environments and their oral language...these differences in exposure are consistently correlated with differences in language comprehension, vocabulary, and syntax.” 

He added that it was in the diversity of mom's vocabulary -- not how much she talks -- that lets a 24-month-old say and know the unique words, according to research. 

Speech language pathologist Anthony D. Koutsoftas, PhD. agreed that parents should use more “big” words. He shared with Smart Parenting how pleasantly surprised he was when a 4-year-old he talked to knew the word “allergy.” He said, “He knew the word already. The way toddlers quickly learn how to use the phone or play with it shows you how ready they are to learn. If they can learn [how to work an electronic gadget], they can learn about words like allergy.”

4. Lessen screen time. 
Avoid using shows on televisions and apps on your gadgets as your primary teaching tool for your kids to learn words and how to speak. Remember you are still the best teachers. “Mere exposure to language such as listening to the television or adults talking among themselves provides little benefit for children’s language development,” said Ferguson. 

To develop optimal language skills, young children need to “interact directly with other human beings, to hear people talking about what they are seeing and experiencing,” wrote Ferguson in a paper outlining guidelines for early-childhood development in infants and toddlers 0 to 3 years old.

Screens can also be a barrier for parent-child communication, Koutsoftas said. “When we let our kids use electronic devices in the car or the bus, [we miss out on] really good opportunities to talk to our children. You can be talking about what you’re seeing and what your day was, and that language exposure is important to your child.”

5. Don’t worry too much. 
First, avoid focusing on how your child pronounces words. If you notice that your child is not saying a word clearly, don’t make a big fuss. And try rein in the laughter although we know it's hard when they're so cute saying it. Seeing his parents delighted can make him want to mispronounce the word again and again so he can get the same reaction. Make sure he knows how to pronounce it correctly.  

Try to expand what your child is saying. If he says “nana” for “banana,” say something like, “Yes, that’s banana on your plate.”

Next, keep calm, mom. It’s okay if your tot is a bit late in speaking as every child is different, Liza Bulos, a speech therapist at the Hope Developmental Center for Children in Las Piñas told Smart Parenting. “Some children may just not be at ease with words. They may be better at jumping and other gross motor skills, or at coloring and other fine motor skills.” 

She also advised against jumping to conclusions and immediately putting the blame on a learning disability. “Sometimes it’s just a normal delay that can easily be corrected. Many times labeling a normal delay as autism or hyperactivity or mental retardation is more damaging.” 

Happy talking!

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