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I remember a friend recently looking at me as our two teenage daughters chatted away 100 mph and she said, “Remember when they were babies and we actually WANTED them to start talking?”

The first word of a baby, other than “mama” and “dada” is usually uttered at around a year. By two years of age, we look for combinations of words, followed by little sentences, then conversations!

At Parents as Teachers, we know that good language and communication skills take work and practice. I turned to Dan McCool who owns Ozark Therapy for some of his best suggestions and strategies for encouraging language skills.

1. Create opportunities: This could mean going on field trips and looking for new things to discuss, or even putting small portions on everyone’s plate at dinner to make sure they use their language skills to ask for more. This is where a parent can then model appropriate words and manners.

2. Read to your child: McCool calls reading absolutely invaluable. Inevitably, a child will grow to love a certain book. If it is one he requests every night, parents can change the story to see if the child catches the mistake. Let thim correct you. Also, let the child “read” the book to you. Even if they are not old enough to actually read the words, they know how the story goes.

3. Play dumb: When your child asks for something, you could give them the wrong thing, or act like you don’t understand. This makes them use more words to try and convey their message in a different way.

4. Give choices: If a child isn’t very talkative, one of the best ways to elicit language is to give a preferred and nonpreferred choice. If the child does not verbalize the choice in a few seconds, the parent says, “OK, I will choose for you.” Then the parent could pick the non-preferred choice. The next time the child will likely verbalize his choice quickly because Mom or Dad is such a bad decision-maker!

5. Ask open-ended questions: Yes/no questions only get a one-word response. Example, don’t ask, “Did you have fun today?” Ask, “What did you do today?”

6. Praise the communication you like: Lots of positive feedback will keep them motivated and trying!

7. Give them some responsibilities: Little kids want to be treated like big kids. For example, let them set the table and see if they can follow and understand your directions, such as getting out the forks and putting them on the table. If this is not a challenge, make it more complex like put out the forks, then the napkins, then the spoons.

8. Occasionally change the way the game is played: Don’t do this all the time because kids thrive on routine. However, it is a great way to spark some input from the kids when you change the way you normally do things. Tell the kids you are going to have a picnic breakfast or take a different route to school.

9. Be silly: The work of children is to have fun! When they have fun, they are more likely to take in and retain new information. They are also willing to try new things in new ways, including language skills. When you are having fun is when the best learning takes place!

10. Allow natural consequences to occur: This works on building cause-and-effect awareness. Often parents keep an undesirable consequence from occurring. For example, the child may ask for a lemon in their tea. Even though you know they will not like it, they will discover it when they bite into the extremely sour fruit.

I have the privilege of working with Dan McCool, as he is contracted through the Carthage R-9 for early childhood speech therapy. His company, Ozark Therapy, provides not only speech and language therapy but occupational therapy and physical therapy. Ozark Therapy serves only children, and they serve families all over Southwestern Missouri. If you are concerned in any way about how your child is developing, contact your local Parents as Teachers office for a free screening and services. Screenings start at 6 months old and run through the child’s kindergarten screening. For more information on Ozark Therapy, call (417) 753-7400.

Jane Drummond is a parent educator for the Carthage School District.

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