My daughter’s favourite topic of conversation at the moment is ‘big school’. ‘I’ll go to big school tomorrow. I’ll take my bags and my scooter. Postman Pat’s at big school in the toy box but he’s lost his cat’, she says. My daughter is nearly three and she chats all day long so much so that I wonder if she ever stops to actually think.
She also tells elaborate tales about bringing the playgroup teachers home, showing all and sundry her new bedroom, going to granny’s house for her birthday party and wearing beautiful princess dresses.
So why is she such a chatterbox? It is probably down to the fact that I am a Speech Therapist and I suppose in honesty, I have been watching her communication development like a hawk and enjoying every single tiny step.
It all started when Jess was about 10 weeks old and she began to talk to me! Talk – at 10 weeks old. No…she’s not that good, but around this time, Jess and I would snuggle up close on the sofa together and have a chat. I would look into her eyes and talk to her in a sing-songy voice – ‘we had a lovely time at Lucy’s house’, and then I would look at Jess expectantly and wait for Jess to ‘answer’. She would say, ‘ahh’, ‘urr’ or ‘ooo’ and I would say something of about the same length back to her, pausing again, and waiting for her to respond. We’d go on in this way for some time, like a pair of gossips over the garden fence, learning the ‘art of turn taking’ which is an essential, early form of conversation.
I was so keen to share all I learned from putting my Speech Therapy knowledge into motherhood that I ended up writing a book, Small Talk: Simple ways to boost your child’s speech and language skills from birth to four years.
Its publication has proved timely. According to education minister Elizabeth Truss, we are currently in the middle of something of a communication crisis. ‘It is a very sad fact that 33 per cent of children arrive at school without the requisite communication and language skills to take part in school education,’ she says.
The good news is that there is a lot you can do to encourage your child, or your grandchild, along the way to being a talkative toddler. And, the sooner you get started, the better. Researchers at Bristol University studied the impact of a child’s early environment (before they are two) on their language and found that children with a positive communication environment at home went on to achieve higher scores in tests of language, reading and maths when they entered school.
Professor Roulstone, Director of the Speech and Language Therapy Research Unit for North Bristol Trust, says, ‘As parents, we can have a big impact on how our children learn to talk and the better our children are talking by the age of two years, the better they will do when they start school.’
Here, I share the Small Talk Techniques that have helped to turn Jess into a champion chatterbox…
Say What You See
If there were only one single thing I could suggest, it would be this – the Say What You See Technique. It is the best strategy to encourage communication in children of all ages.
As they play, give a gentle running commentary of what they are doing. It may sound simple, but this powerful technique helps your child to link what he hears to what he is doing or thinking.
We naturally want to test, question and direct our children, so the challenge is in trying to stay in the moment, describing what they are doing rather than what you think (itals) they should be doing next.
For example, when your child is playing with bricks, stop yourself from saying, ‘what shall we do? Build me a tower!’. Instead, stick to what your child is actually doing or effecting, such as ‘Bang, bang, bang go the bricks.’
By saying ‘bang, bang, bang’, you are verbalizing their experience, putting their thoughts into words and, next time they repeat the action or play sequence, they’ll hear your voice in their head, almost like a scratched record, and eventually want to say it for themself.
I use this this technique all the time with Jess, so whether we are at the doctors, whizzing round the supermarket or walking round the park, I describe what’s happening and what we can see, pausing to let her join in, or ask questions.
In fact, Jess is so into Say What You See that now she constantly tells me what she (itals) can see. This backfired rather spectacularly recently when a chap with muddy trousers walked past us. ‘A dirty old man walking down Mummy’ she piped up loudly.
‘I most certainly am not!’ said the furious (forty-something) man as he stalked off.
Be simple and clear
Before a child can even begin to speak, he or she needs to first understand what is being said. Once your baby can understand that something that is fluffy and says ‘woof, woof’ is a dog, they can then begin to start to say the word. So, we must use our words clearly as a model for our babies.
The best way to help your little one start to make sense of the world is by feeding them bite-sized morsels of language at the right level. So, if your toddler is under the age of one, for example, try to communicate in a very simplistic way, in one or two word phrases.
Focus on the key words in a sentence and don’t worry too much about using correct grammar. A sentence like ‘the teddy has fallen out of the push chair’ should be simplified to ‘teddy fall down’, depending on the level of the child’s language.
As well as being simple and clear, aim to be consistent. For example, there are lots of different ways of describing having a drink; you might say you’re thirsty/do you want juice/a drink/water/milk/bottle/cup. But your child will learn more quickly if you drill into him just one such word, so try to pick one and stick to it in the early stages of language development. With this in mind, I would say something like, ‘Drink. Yummy drink’ when giving your child their beaker or if he or she points to a cup or bottle.
My neighbour recently told me that her 1 year old’s first word was “no”. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this is a real speech no-no. This is because this is the word that she is modeling for her son. So, try to keep in mind The Positive Parenting theory (where you tell them what you DO want them to do, rather than what you DON’T). So, instead of shouting, ‘No, Jack!’ when he yanks his sister’s hair, I say, ‘Gently, Jack!’
Repeat, repeat, repeat
Having faithfully stuck to the positive parenting strategy, I was rather thrilled when Jess’ first word, at about 10 months, was ‘cat’. It wasn’t effortless – I had been pointing to our puss Keith and saying cat every time we saw him, as I knew that repetition was key when it came to helping children to understand words and learn to say them.
Jess always took great delight in watching Keith and first began squealing excitedly, then pointing and squealing, before beginning to attempt to say it herself. It began as ‘ah’, so I’d praise her effort and model the correct word back to her: ‘Yes Jess, cat! Clever girl. Cat’. Then, with lots of repetition and reward from the whole family, it slowly morphed into a completely clear ‘Cat!’.
Another lovely vocab building moment happened tonight when my husband and Jess were drawing on paper on the carpet. Jess started pushing the pen through the paper making tiny dots so when they turned the paper over, my husband said, as he ran his hands over the dots, “look Jess, it’s like brail”. In response Jess said, “Yes, well done, daddy, it’s just like brail”. We all laughed. Jess has no idea what brail is but she rewarded my husband for his efforts and repeated the word for him. A speech therapist in the making!
Using words in context
When you repeat certain words, make sure they are in context. For example, say ‘up’ each time you pick up your baby, repeat ‘down, down, down’ when you go down the stairs or ‘shake, shake, shake’ for a rattle. Doing this each time will help your baby learn the word and also reinforce the context in which that word is meaningfully used.
This is how Jess learnt to say hello. She was fairly obsessed with telephones and was holding anything and everything up to her ear (from remote controls to building blocks to bread sticks!), cocking her head comically to one side, and gabbling away. So we started saying, ‘Hello. Hello Jess!’ and very soon she began copying us with an emphatic ‘Hulah’.
Ten minutes of Small Talk Time a day
Everyone should aim to spend at least ten minutes of uninterrupted, quality time playing with each child every day – as a bare minimum, with a bed-time story on top. This sounds shockingly short, but think about how often you are busy multi-tasking as you chat to your children – half listening to them while you empty the dishwasher, check your emails or unpack the supermarket shopping.
Set the scene to get the most out of your Small Talk Time. Turn off all your gadgets (TV, radio, computer and phone) because you need to focus all your attention on your child and they need to hear you clearly so they have only one source of information to process. Make sure you are at the same eye level and face to face.
Now get ready to start playing because – and this is a final reminder of a very important point – ‘language develops through play’. And don’t forget to Say What You See, modeling the language your child needs to put their thought into word – probably pretending to be a princess, air hostess or teacher in our case! Good luck.
Nicola Lathey is the co-author of Small Talk: Simple ways to boost speech and language development from birth to 4 years (published by Macmillan).