Strategies to Elicit Language Development in Young Children

In the previous blog posts, we focused on describing the various developmental milestones that a child is expected to acquire by a certain age. While this information is useful in order to “track” your child’s development, did you know that there are also strategies that you yourself can implement in order to promote their language development at home? Many “mommy friends” of mine ask me “What activities/games should I do with my baby/toddler?” We all know that actively playing with our children is integral for their language and social development, but many struggle to actually PLAY with their kids! Playing all the while stimulating language, is indeed a skillful act. We coach our clients on indirect language stimulation strategies to help promote receptive and expressive language development. Young children and toddlers learn language through their natural environment, a major chunk of which happens during active play. Whether or not you have a later talker, use play to help your child realize that everything around them has a name (e.g., cup), a purpose (e.g., drinking), and various attributes, such as colour, shape, and size. Below is a list of some naturalistic strategies that you can use with your child while exploring and playing (adapted from J. Morrison):

SELF-TALK (centered on the adult, no response required from the child):

SELF-TALK is about what you are doing while the child watches. Use short sentences to talk about what you’re doing. For example: as you tie your shoe, you can say:

“I’m tying my shoe. Tying my shoe.” “Tie my shoe. Make it tight.” Or, as you wash the dishes:

“Wash the dish. Dry the spoon.”“Tie the knot.” “Put the plate away.”

SELF-TALK seems to be most helpful to children 12-24 months old.

Self-talk (modeling): Describing what you are doing while you do it; also describing your emotions

Ex: Adult is pushing truck into the play garage.

Adult: I’m pushing the truck. In it goes. Into the garage. The truck is in the garage.

PARALLEL TALK (child centered):

With PARALLEL TALK, the adult describes what the child is seeing, hearing or doing as he or she does it. For example:

“You have a ball. You rolled it.”

“You have a truck. You’re spinning the wheels.”

Remember that you don’t need to comment on every action. This often gives the child too much information.

Don’t be afraid to repeat words or phrases. Repetition may be boring to you, but it isn’t to a young child, and it helps the child to learn. To make repetition more effective, vary the tone of your voice as you repeat words and phrases.

DESCRIPTION (object centered):

DESCRIPTION is providing word labels for the objects the child is playing with, touching or seeing. In this example, notice the difference between parallel talk and description:


“You’re rolling the ball.” “The ball is rolling.”

Other examples of description are:

“It’s a plane. It’s a big plane.”

“It has parts. There’s a wing.”

“It’s broken.”

After you have used PARALLEL TALK and your description for a while, you’ll begin to use them together comfortably. It’s important to remember that the adult should always follow the child’s lead in commenting on actions or objects.

EXPANSION (repetition and more):

EXPANSION is adding more information to the words the child uses to talk about objects or actions. By adding more words, the adult is revising and completing the child’s speech, without direct correction. For example:

If the child says, “Plane,” the adult can say:

“Yes, it’s a plane.”

If the child says, “broken, the adult can say:

“Yes, the plane is broken.”

If the child says, “Mommy, bye-bye,” the adult can say:

“Mommy is going bye-bye.”

Using EXPANSION shows the child that you are listening. When you expand on the child’s words and phrases, be sure you are making statements, instead of asking questions.


Use EXPANSION-PLUS after the child begins to make his or her own “baby sentences.” Stretch out the “baby sentences” by adding one or more short sentences to it. For example:

If the child says: If the child says:

“Yellow puzzle.” “Oh, oh, baby cry.”

Expansion: Expansion:

“You’ve got a yellow puzzle.” “The baby is crying.”

Expansion-Plus: Expansion-Plus:

“It’s a big puzzle.” “He’s hungry.”

Again, remember that you’re not correcting, only adding more information to sentences.

NOTE: This material is from the videotape program, OH SAY WHAT THEY SEE: AN INTRODUCTION TO INDIRECT LANGUAGE STIMULATION TECHINIQUES, copyright 1984. For further information on the program, contact: Educational Productions, 4925 SW Humphrey Park Crest, Portland, Oregon, USA 97221/(503) 292-9234