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  • Writer's pictureChattykiddo

Building words into functional communication

In this post, Natalie advises readers on how to create and bank on opportunities to expand your child’s spontaneous communication skills.


Helping young children build speech- language skills is an exciting job that caregivers and educators try to do every second of the day.  We spend so much time giving our children directions to follow, asking them all the different questions, and modeling words and phrases to shape them into eloquent communicators.

What I find we do NOT do enough, sometimes, is hold back on our never ending models of what to say or how to answer questions, instead of allowing our children to initiate communication and engage with us spontaneously and freely.  Greenspan refers to these initiations as opening circles of communication (Weirder & Greenspan “Engaging Autism”, 2006).

Speech- language development can be thought of as having three interacting and equally important domains- Form, Content, and Use (Lahey, 1988).  Form refers to the structure and grammatical “correctness” of the words and sentences (eat vs. eat+ ing).  Content is what the we are essentially communicating- the semantics or the meaning of our message.  Use (also known as pragmatics) refers to the function or purpose of the words we use in specific situations (e.g. to greet, comment on something, request things, protest, etc).

The communicative functions slowly begin to emerge and characterize expressive communication even before the first birthday.   Expanding and becoming more diversified over the course of the child’s language acquisition (especially in the first years of life), these functions vary from child to child in how soon they become words and phrases.   We learn to communicate so we can engage with the world, to participate in it.   The learns to greet others, comment on objects and actions, request desired objects or request assistance, protest, ask questions, regulate others (e.g. “blow!”, “open!”) and eventually narrate events.

In order for children to be able to express themselves verbally, aside from the intent to communicate, there must also be opportunities to express wants, needs, and ideas.  For example, why would Timmy request for an object (nonverbally or verbally), if the caregiver hands everything to the child at the slightest sign of a tantrum.  Why ask a “where?” question if every toy or beloved object is comfortably in sight and within reach?  Why ask for “help” if the caregiver readily assists the child with all activities.  The educators describe it as assuming the child’s needs.   Many parents are guilty of that.


Of course we do it out of love and care and, let’s be honest, sometimes, to save time.  However, it is important with both typical and delayed children to be mindful of what (form, content, use) we model, when we model it (timing and context are crucial when teaching language) , how we model it (facial expression, tone of voice, etc), and why we model it at this very moment (is it developmentally important to teach it now?).

Just as it is important for kids to comprehend concepts, follow directions, and understand the different wh- questions, it is also paramount that your child is able to initiate communication.  After all, communication is the ability to express ideas, thoughts and wants, as well as the ability to understand what is expressed by others.   Answering questions and following commands is not initiating.  Language that is elicited by us is not spontaneous.

To use language spontaneously, effortlessly, and creatively, children need opportunities to practice their communication skills, to experience taking the lead.  In order for our children to get there, we must surely first offer models of how to initiate communication and do so appropriately.  With enough models of, say, how to greet others, we can then create opportunities for the child to speak up!

play 2

The most basic strategies you can use to encourage spontaneous communication (whether nonverbal or verbal), initially, may seem counterintuitive.  What is the point of introducing an attractive new toy or displaying a yummy snack, if you will put it away or place it strategically out of reach?  Yet it is precisely this very action that will likely encourage your child to run after you with gestures and words.  Even then, you may still choose to play “dumb” as to what it is your child wants.  This is the time to offer what we call “a choice of two”- “Do you want the truck or the ____? (parent, fill in the blank).

If your kiddo is not yet using spoken words to communicate, then his/her use of gestures to regulate your actions and get the desired item out and open is the initial step toward sound imitation and eventually word approximation.   Moreover, if you are working on getting your child to ask for help, there is your opportunity to verbally model “help”, at the moment when your youngster is right in front of you struggling to open the bag with much wanted cookies.  On a side note, I often hear educators modeling “help me please!”, expecting the child to imitate the entire phrase.   This expectation and linguistic demand is not a developmental way of teaching, if the child is still at the single word level and is not cognitively and/or motorically ready to produce a THREE word utterance (with the same function of as the basic “help!”).   Yes, it is nice to hear a full sentence, but your child may not be ready for it.

Young woman with baby boy during plaing. Woman showing toy to baby. They are at container with toys. Front view.

Furthermore, while playing with the child and actively commenting on your joint play, you may find it productive to suddenly become quiet and cease all attempts to speak, ask questions and comment.   This often works beautifully in my therapy sessions, usually, after I have enticed the child into some sort of cooperative enjoyable play.   However, it takes a conscious effort and self-control on the part of the adult to do that, since we are so used to engaging into this adult- directed way of teaching, playing, and just being with our children.

Once you are able to contain your speech and actions (I promise it is possible), you might be surprised to hear some immediate or delayed imitations of sounds/words/ phrases.   When you have engaged the child enough, enticed him/her enough into fun play routine, modeled enough actions and names of objects in play, you might even hear some spontaneous first words! (“ball!”, “Go!”).   To me, the language produced, is an indication that the child wants more of the experience, more of language enriched play.  This is victory.  Use this opportunity to expand on what she/he is already saying, build on it.

Remember, allowing nothing to happen and nothing to be modeled for a few minutes may just be the push to help your kiddo come out with some initiations.   At this point of your joint play, timing is really important as you want to imitate back everything your child is doing and saying.  This is another way to communicate with your child.  Build on your child’s language to further describe the objects or people in play.

In a similar way, stopping a novel activity or toy exploration at the very height of your child’s excitement also works well with many children.  You don’t have to be confrontational about it- “if you don’t imitate ‘car’, I won’t give the car back to you”, but do create these so called “obstructions” as Greenspan refers to them, in a friendly, playful and positive manner.  In fact, obstructions or fabricated “problems” are a big part of social-cognitive and constructivist theories of language learning.


The idea behind these “obstructions” is that the children are compelled to problem- solve and use available resources (language being one of them) to get what they want.  Allowing your child to problem- solve is key to overall cognitive development, which directly shapes speech and language.  Presenting the child with developmentally appropriate activities that involve thinking and figuring out how to get X or Y is an invaluable strategy that I always use in my therapy sessions.

In summary, don’t be afraid to prevent access to desired items: tape up containers, close boxes and jars with favorite toys or snack; give your child all but ONE important item that is needed to complete an activity (e.g. glue, scissors), give your child the “wrong” item, or offer the “wrong” solution to the problem.   All of these “problems” will push the kiddo to think and figure out what to do next.  This, in turn, encourages spontaneous functional language use.

Letting go of control and just allowing for things to spill, break, and get messy, avoiding following the predictable comfortable routine, all create opportunities for communication.  These are the most teachable moments as our children experience all the new words in naturalistic context.  Perhaps, this is why many children learn the words “dirty” and “wet” way before they can memorize colors.  These concepts are often learned effortlessly because they are experiential and bring about words that describe personally and emotionally relevant experiences.  So let’s have fun playing while we learn and learn as we play!

Thank you for reading and Happy talking!

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