Building on Language Skills

Maureen Mulligan LaRossa, R.N.

The following material is provided with the goal of helping you build on your child's present language skills. The first step is to determine what your child understands and what language concepts they can use with ease. Once you know where your child is in mastering language, you can help them expand their skills. We will start this section with general principles for working with young children. The next section will offer ideas for testing your child's understanding of word concepts (up, down, big and small) and then offer suggestions for helping children learn these concepts.

Tips for working with young children:

  • Young children are very physical; they learn through their bodies. Many young children learn best by physically carrying out an action, rather than just talking about it.
  • The more senses engaged in learning, the better some young children will understand and remember what you are teaching them. Let them hear about a concept as they see it, feel it, act it out, smell it or taste it. It is important to note that for some children the opposite is true. This is especially the case for children with sensory issues. Children who are easily over stimulated or become upset easily may need concepts introduced slowly through one, or at most two, senses at a time. Try different approaches and watch your child's reaction. The right approach is the one that works for the individual child.
  • Adults may get bored with repetition, but children love to do things over and over again--it's how they learn.
  • One way to test your child's understanding of what is said to him/her is to shake things up and make a game of asking them to do things for you. This can help you determine whether your child is understanding or just not listening.
  • When trying to determine if a child understands a verbal direction watch your facial expression and eye gaze. Children read a lot of meaning from an adult's face.
  • When trying to figure out if your child understands different words test them several times over a few days. At any one moment a child may be tired, feel uncooperative or be focused on something, resulting in the child tuning you out, not listening to what you have just said.
  • Keep verbal instructions short and stress the key words. For very young children it may be best to say, "STOP, no touch" or "stop, HOT" versus "Don't touch the stove." A child may not focus on what you are saying for several beats into your statement. This would mean the child hears "…touch the stove."
  • Find different ways to use an idea you are trying to teach a young child. This makes it more likely the child will really understand and be able to use the idea no matter who or how it is asked in the future. A child who can only follow a direction if it is stated an exact way or in a certain order does not really understand the underlying idea. The child has just learned a response to specific cue.


Does your child hold a conversation with you?

Check it out: Adults sometimes use the time they spend with children telling them what they should or should not be doing. While this part of communication is important, we also need to engage children in conversations. Talk to your child about what you are doing or someplace you both have been. Does your child take turns listening and "talking?" Even children who do not use words can hold a conversation. The conversation may be jabbering (baby talk) or jabbering with a few words sprinkled in, but they should look at you and take turns "talking" and listening.

Teaching: You may find the best time to talk with your child is during an activity. For example, taking a walk, mealtime, playtime, bath-time, while doing chores or interspersed with reading a story. Look at your child and say something, wait for a response and then see how long you can keep the "conversation," i.e., turn taking (you talk, the child talks), going.

When your child brings you something, takes you to something, or points to something s/he wants, state what it is you think your child is trying to communicate. For example, Your child points to the milk. You say, "You want milk?" Give your child the milk while repeating the key word, "milk." If your child responds by jabbering or using words, keep the "conversation" going for as many rounds as you can. You are teaching your child the structure of how people "talk" to each other. In addition, you are letting your child know that what s/he has to say is important to you and worth the effort it takes to communicate.

Prepositions and Directions

Does your child understand prepositions, for example, "in," "on," "under," "over" and "behind?"

Check it out: Ask your child to place an object "on" a chair. Pick something that does not usually go "on" a chair, maybe a slipper. Test for the understanding of other prepositions the same way. Make sure you do not point where you want it to go. Making the request silly can seem fun if the child understands the preposition. It can also make it easier for you to determine if he/she does not understand. When asking a child to place an object in, on, under, over or behind something pick some place were the object is not ordinarily used.

Ask your child to put the keys "in" a basket. Place the cereal "in" a cup. Place a hat "under" a chair. Place a toy "under" a plate. Place an orange "behind" an apple. Go stand "behind" your brother. Place a book "over" your head. Place a drawing "over" the doorknob.

Teaching: If you discover your child does not understand some prepositions here are some suggestions of ways to make a child aware of these words:

Play "Follow the Leader." You or an older child can be the leader. Pick two prepositions to work on at a time, for example "under" and "on." The leader sits "under" a table and then urges your child to follow, repeating "under the table." Then the leader goes and sits "on" an overturned bucket, having your child follow the leader and then emphasizing the phrase again. Repeat this for several more rounds sitting under and on various things in and outside your home. Always emphasize the key words and encourage (but do not force) your child to repeat the word or phrase. Keep it simple, lively and fun.

Stress prepositions while carrying out everyday chores and activities around the house. For example, ask your child to help put the dirty clothes "in" the clothesbasket (bag, pile wherever your keep dirty clothes). For example, "Dee, put them "IN" the basket" (if your child seems confused you may need to point to the basket). When Dee puts a sock in the basket praise her: "Good, you put it "IN." There are thousands of opportunities each day to give your child practice with prepositions.

Does your child understand direction words, for example, "up," "down," "around," or "sideways?"

Check it out: While you are doing an everyday activity with your child suddenly ask him/her to sit down, turn around or get up. Be careful not to point, gaze or gesture in the direction you want your child to go.

Teaching: If you discover your child does not understand words that indicate a direction there are many ways you can give him/her practice with these concepts.

When picking up your child emphasize "UP" as you lift him/her. Likewise emphasize the word "DOWN" as you place your child on the floor. Be aware of opportunities to point out direction concepts to your child when you are with them during a day.

Play "Simon Says." With the child facing you, say "Simon says DOWN (or walk BACKWARDS or walk SIDEWAYS)." If your child can not yet follow the verbal command, "Simon" should do the action while saying what to do. If the child does what "Simon Says," clap and praise your child while emphasizing the word you are working on. For example, "Tarik, you sat DOWN!" For younger children it is best to use this simple version of "Simon Says." Getting them to follow what Simon says to do is the goal. It may be too hard and frustrating for them if they are expected to know when not to do something, which is the point of the traditional "Simon Says" game. You can always work them up to that later. Other games you remember from your childhood may work for teaching directions as well.

Labeling Emotions

Does your child understand what a "sad," "happy," or "mad" face is? Does your child connect the expression on a face with the feeling?

Check it out: Look in a mirror with your child sitting beside you. Smile broadly and say "See my happy face? You make a happy face!" If your child can copy you be sure to praise her/his efforts. If your child does not get what you are asking, you can help him/her learn about feelings.

Teaching: Playing in a mirror can be very useful for teaching a child to recognize and label emotions. A good time to try this may be while giving your child a bath (using a non-breakable mirror of course). Most children love to look at themselves in the mirror. Look in the mirror with your child and make faces, copying each other. Name the expressions you and your child are making. Ask your child to make a face. Whatever the expression, copy it and label it. "You made a happy (silly, bored, sad) face. See I can make one too!" Try to keep your child engaged for several rounds.

Any time your child has a strong emotional response to something you can label and talk about how s/he feels. For example, as your child calms down from a temper tantrum you might say "You certainly were mad (angry)." If your child is smiling and jumping up and down because you are about to buy ice cream, you might say, "You look very happy." There are many opportunities in a week to talk about your child's or other family member's feelings.

If your child does not seem to understand what you are asking her/him to do, or can make a face but not label it, do not worry, eventually he/she will understand. For now it is important that the two of you are talking together, enjoying the time spent together and that your child is learning to strengthen the ability to join in shared attention (two people together focusing on the same thing). In time your child should have a vocabulary to talk about emotion.

Same and Different

Does your child understand the idea of "same" vs. "different?"

Check it out: Get two objects or pictures that are exactly the same and two that are different. Line up three of the pictures/objects. You keep one of the matched pair. Now ask your child to point to the picture/object that looks the same as the one you are holding. You can also ask which one is different from the one you are holding.

Teaching: The board game, Memory, is a good way for children to learn to match pictures that are the same. The principles of this game can be used to teach children their colors, numbers or letters when they are ready for those concepts.

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© 1998, 2001 Copyright Maureen Mulligan, LaRossa, R.N.