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Interpret what your child says

Interpret what you child says - child pointing at duck

For example, if they vocalize in a situation, make a guess as to what they are “trying” to say and reflect that back to them. For example, if they say, “Ah” when looking at an apple, you can say, “That IS an apple”, or “You want an apple”.

Why this encourages your child to talk

You might be worried that your child isn’t saying as many words as other children and conclude that the remedy is to work on having them say more words. But actually, what we want is more conversation and surprisingly, this can happen way before they can properly pronounce words. When you respond to your child’s conversation starters, you demonstrate that their “words” have the power to express their desires and interests. When you make a guess about what they might be saying, you are modeling that they can use their words to make requests, express their interests, and connect with you. Here are some conversation starters for you to look for:

  • Vocalizing
  • Pointing at something
  • Reaching for something
  • Reacting to something they hear

Here are some other examples that might help: 

  • While you’re on a walk, they say “bu” while looking at a bird, you can say “A bird!”
  • While you’re trying to put on their shoes, they say “O” with an angry look, you can say “No! You don’t want your shoes.” (We’ll have a future post for what you can say next to get those shoes on!)
  • If your child says “oh no” when a loud car races by, you can say “That was loud! I heard that car too!” 
  • If they point to a book and make a sound, you can say “You want a book.”

Tone of voice makes a big difference. Make it encouraging and fun! Click below to hear some examples:

What if I don’t know what they are saying?

A lot of the time, you won’t know what they are saying. That’s standard for all parents while their children are learning to talk. Don’t get hung up on whether you are right or wrong and remind yourself it’s all about continuing the conversation. Here are some tips that might help.

Look for clues in the context of the situation: 

  • What are they looking at? If they are looking at a tree, maybe they are talking about leaves, birds, or even the tree itself.
  • What are they reaching for? If they are reaching for their teddy bear, TiTi could mean Teddy but if they are reaching for their cup, it could mean drink.
  • What are they hearing? Is there a loud truck outside?
  • What just happened? Did the cat just walk by?

If you still don’t know…

  • Make a guess! “I like apples too!”
  • Keep the conversation going by saying something like “Tell me more!”

What to avoid:

  • Don’t make your child confirm your guess. While it would be polite to say to an adult who has laryngitis or just got a root canal, “Are you trying to say you want an apple?” and wait for them to say yes or no, that’s not what we want you to do with your child. Instead, you’re making your best guess and stating “You want an apple.”
  • Don’t correct their pronunciation by saying something like “It’s called an apple.” Simply model the correct pronunciation by using Apple in a simple sentence.
  • Don’t point out that they are using the wrong word. For example, if they point to Grandma and say “Ma,” don’t say “No, that’s Grandma, not Mama.” Instead you can say something like, “Hello Grandma! It’s so nice of you to visit!”
  • Don’t say “Say.” Don’t say “That’s an Apple, Can you say Apple?”
  • Don’t say “Say please.” If you think they are asking for something, you might think you should instill good manners by training them to say please but you are inadvertently telling them what they’ve said isn’t good enough. Before teaching manners, we want them to feel the power of language to get what they want and to express themselves. A good rule of thumb is to work on manners after they have about 25 words they say clearly and consistently.

About this series

The posts in this series match the home programs that our therapists give parents. McLellan Homecare therapists always give parents some homework to help them play an active role in their child’s therapy. While the therapist has only an hour or two per week, you—as their primary caregivers—have dozens of small opportunities every day to help your child develop new skills. But we also know that parents are very busy so we just concentrate on one small task each week. Your child’s therapist will help you apply this information to your particular child’s situation and even interests. Each week the therapist will ask about how it went and help you with suggestions if you are having trouble implementing the program.

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