Today I’d like to discuss a fairly easy way that caregivers can help their children increase not only their language comprehension--the words they understand--but also their verbal language output, or the words they say.


When young children are developing early language skills, we know that they need to understand language before they can use it. Even then, we sometimes see a gap between receptive language comprehension and expressive language use. Parents of my clients will often tell me: “They understand everything I’m telling them, but they just aren’t using those words.”

There are many strategies that speech-language pathologists walk caregivers through in order to build a language-rich environment. Today I’m covering how to use verbal and visual choices as a way to support comprehension and new vocabulary.

When should I use this strategy?

A child may approach you with a want or a need. Maybe they’re hungry, maybe they’d like to play with you--this is great! We’re going to capitalize on their communicative intent. They’ve already shown some great foundational language skills just by initiating with another person.

Note the context:

When they initiate, we should take note of the context. Are they looking toward the kitchen? Reaching toward the toy cupboard? Perfect--now let’s follow their lead. If they’re reaching for the pantry, we can take the opportunity to model: “I’m hungry.” Modeling means offering your child an example of something that they could or should say in that moment.

Offering choices:

Now, let’s reach into the pantry and take out two options for them. It’s important that these are options you're willing for them to have. So it might not be a good idea to offer them either cookies or popsicles if you’d rather they had neither!

Using visual cues:

Language learning is all about context, so visual cues are important. If you can get your hands on both the options that you’re offering, that’s ideal. Show both, offering one at a time. We can say: “Pretzels?” or “Raisins?” When we model these simple labels, we’re simultaneously building comprehension and providing a hint for kids who might already have these words in their receptive vocabulary, but now they just need to use them.

Modeling language expansion:

What happens next? Let's say your child verbally chooses "pretzels." We can then take the opportunity to model a language expansion. This helps cue them into the next possible word in that sentence. For example: “I want pretzels” or “Pretzels, please.”

What if my child doesn’t imitate the word I modeled?

If your child reaches for one of the choices without saying or imitating one of the words you’ve modeled, pause and continue to hold the object out of reach. Model the label for their choice once more. If they still don’t imitate you, that’s okay. You’ve given them contextual exposure to vocabulary.

If they do imitate, nice work! You might now try language expansion. Either way, go ahead and give them the pretzels, or whatever they’ve chosen.

Are there other opportunities to use this strategy?

This strategy can easily be used across all sorts of daily activities. Getting dressed? If so, what should we put on first: “pants?” or “shirt?” Ready to play? If so: “blocks?” or “puzzle?”

Common mistakes to avoid:

When we keep our language model simple for early language learners, we’re increasing the likelihood of comprehension and imitation. By comparison, if your child reaches for the toy box and we ask them: “Do you want to play with some toys?” or “Let’s find your cards to play with,” we might be missing out on a key opportunity for them to jump in and express that language themselves.

What to do if you're concerned about your child’s language development:

If you have concerns regarding your child’s speech and language development, you should contact their physician. They may recommend seeking services from a speech-language pathologist.