The teacher’s voice was warm and caring as she soothed Katrina after a fall. Katrina, 9 months old, crying intensely, stopped and looked up at the teacher. The teacher continued comforting Katrina with calm words. The teacher then stopped and waited expectantly for Katrina to take a turn in the conversation. Katrina started babbling, as if telling the teacher all about the nasty fall. This communication exchange seemed emotionally satisfying to both Katrina and the teacher, as Katrina stopped crying, gave a big sigh, and began babbling excitedly.

The teacher in this example is using responsive language. She is empathic and waits for Katrina to take a turn in the conversation. We have identified a dozen strategies like those represented in the scenario with Katrina that parents and teachers use to support children learning to express themselves, to hear and understand language, and to become competent communicators.

1. Build Relationships—Be an Empathic Language Partner

When a person cares about another person, he or she usually wants to communicate with that person. An infant or toddler will want to communicate with you when she feels safe and cared for in loving ways. Infants and toddlers communicate when it is pleasant to communicate, when the affect or feeling of the communication is warm and loving, and when they understand that their communication attempts will get a response.

2. Respond and Take Turns—Be an Interactive Language Partner

Through your interactions with the infant or toddler you are helping the child learn to use language to communicate. When a toddler asks for a drink and a parent or teacher responds, then the toddler learns that communication is an effective way to get his needs met. When an infant makes sounds or a toddler uses words, respond and then wait for the child to take a turn with sounds, words, or sentences. This conversational dance with each partner taking a turn helps the child learn the pragmatics of conversation—that people take turns exchanging ideas in a social context. These adult-child conversations build young children’s vocabulary as well as their ability to take language turns—a skill that helps them become a conversational partner and a capable communicator. Try not to dominate the conversation with a baby (Girolametto, 2000) by taking more turns than the baby or bombarding the child with language. Instead, focus on reciprocal and responsive interactions with equal give-and-take conversations.

3. Respond to Nonverbal Communication

Can babies that can’t talk try to tell you something? Yes, they can. A yawn can mean the baby is tired or bored, snuggling in to an adult’s body tells you that the baby feels safe and relaxed, a toddler running to you tells you she wants to connect with you, and kicking feet say “I’m uncomfortable.” When babies turn away, they may be communicating that they need a break from the interaction. When infants or toddlers use a strong communication cue, such as arching their back, it means “that hurts,” or “stop what you are doing.” When adults understand and respond to infants’ and toddlers’ nonverbal communication they let children know that they are communication partners. With responsive adults, infants and toddlers are soon using sounds and words, while still maintaining many nonverbal ways to communicate.

4. Use Self-Talk and Parallel Talk

Self-talk is talk that adults use to describe what they are doing while with the infant or toddler. For example, a teacher who is diapering a baby might say, “I’m getting your diaper. Now I’m lifting your feet. I’m putting the diaper on. All done.” Parallel talk occurs when an adult talks about what a child is doing. For example, while the child is playing or eating the adult might say, “Mmm, you’re eating your toast” while pointing to the toast. These strategies tie language to an act or object manipulation, making words come alive and have meaning for the child.

5. Talk Often with the Child, Using a Rich and Varied Vocabulary

Does it matter how much you talk with an infant or toddler, sing, and look at picture books together?  Research shows that the number and quality of the conversations that adults have with infants and toddlers directly affects how they learn to talk (Hart & Risley, 1999; Honig & Brophy, 1996; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). The number of total words and different words that the parent uses with the child daily, the number of conversations, and the positive affirmations from the parent are all related to infants’ and toddlers’ language development (Hart & Risley, 1999).

Researchers have found astounding differences in how much parents talk with their children. Some infants and toddlers hear an average of 600 words an hour while others hear as many as 2100 words an hour. Some children hear 100 different words an hour while others hear 500 different words an hour. These differences in the amount of language that children heard made a difference in their language development. By age 3 the children with talkative parents were talking more and with a richer vocabulary. They were averaging three times as many statements per hour and twice as many words per hour than the children of quieter parents. “The more time that parents spent talking with their child from day to day, the more rapidly the child’s vocabulary was likely to be growing and the higher the child’s score on an IQ test was likely to be at age 3” (Hart & Risley, p. 3).

Use language-rich routines and many interactions with infants and toddlers to build their vocabulary. Diapering, for example, is a perfect time for a parent or teacher to talk about “first” we get a clean diaper, “second” we take off your diaper and so forth. Talking about hands, nose, ears, and toes enlightens the baby about body parts and makes diapering an easier job for you.

6. Use Joint Attention Strategies

Adults in Western cultures often point to the people or objects under discussion when talking with their young children, thereby directing their children’s attention . . . and the mother of a young deaf child is most likely to sign to her child when she knows that the child can simultaneously see both her signs and the objects or events she is talking about. (Harris, 1992, reported in McDevitt & Ormrod, 2000, p. 240)

As noted above, infants and toddlers learn best if the adult labels or talks about an object or person when the infant or toddler is focusing on it. Joint attention occurs when both the adult and the child are focusing on the same thing at the same time. Adults who point at the object of discussion or wait until the infant or toddler is looking at an object to talk about it ensure that the child will attach the language label to the correct object. This type of shared attention enhances language development (Adamson, Bakeman, Deckner, 2004).

7. Use the Four E Approach

Encourage children to communicate by listening, responding, and not correcting their language. Expand on both the semantics and the syntax of a child’s words and conversational turns. Elaborate on (make more complex) and extend (lengthen) the sounds, words, and sentence—for example, by adding a different sound, a new word, or a slightly longer sentence. Imitating and then expanding on the language of the child models the next step in development. The child hears your expansion and is likely to begin to use the newly modeled language forms. An added benefit of using the four Es is that infants and toddlers feel effective and a language equal, promoting further use of language to communicate.

8. Use Semantically Responsive Talk

When adults took language turns with toddlers and stayed on the same topic, children were significantly more likely to reply than if the adult responded but changed the topic (Dunham & Dunham, 1996). While a conversation made up of cooing sounds may seem as if it would be boring to an adult, the delight in an infant’s eyes, the emotional connection, and the continuous development of the infant’s language is reward enough to the caring adult. The adult’s semantic elaboration supports the child’s tendency to stay on the topic, as well. If a toddler is talking about the “airplane” and the listening adult responds semantically with information about the shape or color of the airplane, then the toddler is likely to stay on the topic and say something more about the airplane.

9. Use Infant-Directed Speech

Janna, 13 months old, played quietly with a ball, rolling it and scrambling after it, only to roll it again across the carpet. When she tired of rolling the ball, she looked at her grandfather. Her grandfather sat on the floor beside her and said, “Ball, let’s roll the ball.” Janna smiled as she rolled the ball in Grandpa’s direction. “Ball,” she said quietly, imitating her Grandpa’s word.

Most parents and grandparents use infant-directed speech and babies like Janna learn from it (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2002). As parents and teachers generally try to simplify language in order to teach their infants and toddlers to use language and engage in more responsive interactions, they use speech with a child that is significantly different from speech to an adult. Stressing key words such as “You are jumping” is a part of infant-directed speech. Adults using infant-directed speech also point or direct the child’s attention to the focus of the conversation—for example, pointing to a cup while saying “cup.” Adults repeat words—for example, they might say to an infant or young toddler, “Look, a bird. The bird is flying.” But, isn’t the term infant-directed speech just another term for “baby talk”?
We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t talk baby talk to an infant or toddler, but parents and teachers do use a special language when they interact with their infants because young children are more attentive when adults use it. Adults in most cultures use these practices, and in so doing they are a communication partner and language model for infants and toddlers. Parents who use infant-directed speech are modeling bite-size pieces of language that infants and toddlers can digest and practice. Examples would include the following strategies:

  1. Use responsive talk.
  2. Use shorter sentences and decreased vocabulary.
  3. Exaggerate the pitch and intonation of your voice.
  4. Direct your communication at the infant or toddler.
  5. Use longer pauses between words and utterances.
  6. Frequently repeat words.
  7. Don’t be afraid to be redundant—for example, say, “A bird—a blue bird,” repeating the word bird.
  8. Elongate the vowels in words (“Oooh, whaaaat is that?”).
  9. Use diminutive words (blanky, piggy, doggy).
  10. Use frequent paraphrasing or recasting of previous utterances (toddler says “We go” and parent recasts by saying “Yes, we’re going”).
  11. Talk about what is immediately present.
  12. Use frequent phrases and parts of sentences in isolation (“in the car”).
  13. Use questions and attempts to elicit speech.
  14. Label words—nouns and actions—in context.

Many adults also simplify their speech pragmatically when speaking directly to an infant or toddler. For example, we use language for a variety of social goals—to inform, question, promise, request, refuse, play, and to direct others (functions of language). Parents use fewer functions when infants are young and gradually increase the number and types of functions as the infant grows to become a preschooler and can better understand the intentions of language.

In addition to supporting language development, these infant-directed strategies also build the affectionate relationship between parent and child. While most adults stop using these strategies as infants and toddlers become preschoolers, some words are like emotional glue that binds an adult and child together across time and space. Some special words a parent and child will use forever when they are together. A mother of a 30-year-old might ask her grown child if she would like some “pasgetti” (spaghetti), reminding them both of the early years when the child could not say “spaghetti” and the close attachment between them. A grandmother’s name may become “Ta-ta” forever, because those were the first sounds that the infant made when lying peacefully in the grandmother’s lap.

10. Use Questions and Control Carefully

Questions are often used by adults to start a conversation with a child, to take a conversational turn, or to gain information. Some questions are true questions that are asked because the teacher doesn’t know the answer. Other questions are asked to test children—for example; “What is that?” as they point to a toy on the floor. These questions are often referred to as closed questions because they usually have only one correct answer. There are thoughtful open-ended questions that have more than one acceptable answer, such as, “What song do you want to sing next?” Choice questions —for example, “Do you want juice or milk?”—are perfect questions for toddlers who are exerting their independence from adults.

Infants and toddlers enjoy and benefit from interactions with teachers who use a conversation-eliciting style characterized by conversational turns, maintenance of a mutually interesting topic, and infrequent use of directives. This style is in contrast to a directive style, which is characterized by frequent directives and monologues, infrequent questions, rapid topic changes by adults, and a low level of topic maintenance (Katz & Snow, 2000).

Use behavior control carefully. Behavior control refers to statements that are used by teachers to elicit group participation around a common activity or to manage safety concerns. Frequent prohibitions from adults (for example, “stop that,” “don’t”) result in less favorable child outcomes than when adults use more active listening strategies of repeating, paraphrasing, and extending infants’ and toddlers’ statements (Hart & Risley, 1992).

11. Listen with Your Eyes

A 3-year-old child’s mother picked her up from child care and took her home immediately, so that the mother could prepare dinner. As the mother was pulling food out of the refrigerator, the little girl tried to tell her Mommy about something that had happened during the day. The mother, focused on her task, commented, “Hmm, oh, that’s nice.” The little girl, obviously very frustrated with her mother’s lack of response, said, “Mom, listen to me with your eyes.”

Infants and toddlers—in fact, all human beings—love to be listened to with another person’s full engagement and focus. The little girl described in the example above wanted her mom to look at her and “listen with her eyes.” Infants and toddlers thrive, learn to listen, and take language turns, when adults in their lives do the same with them. (See .) They learn that holding a conversation means taking turns with listening and talking, so they will look at you intently, waiting as patiently as they can for you to finish what you want to say. If a child or family member from a particular culture believes that it is disrespectful to “look into your eyes” while talking, he may prefer for you to listen carefully with your ears and voice, acknowledging that you’ve heard.

12. Read, Sing, Use Finger-Plays and Social Games Like Peek-a-Boo

Playful activities are crucial to enjoyable language learning. Chapter 12 will discuss these topics, including literacy development and experiences, in great detail. Below you will find a summary of strategies to support language development in infants and toddlers.

Strategies to Support Language Development and Learning

  1. Recognize the capacities of infants and toddlers to understand language and communicate using gestures, facial expressions, sounds, and words.
  2. Identify language delay early in a child’s life so that the child and family receive support in developing language skills.
  3. Follow DeHouwer’s (1999) recommendations for parents of children learning two or more languages during the infant and toddler years.
  4. Honor a child’s home language by encouraging parents to continue using the language, employing native language speakers in the program, and using words and phrases from the child’s home language during routines and interactions with the child.
  5. Use a dozen strategies to support children’s language learning.
a. Build relationships—be an empathic language partner.
b. Respond and take turns—be an interactive language partner.
c. Respond to nonverbal communication.
d. Use self-talk and parallel talk.
e. Talk often with the child using a rich and varied vocabulary.
f. Use joint attention strategies.
g. Use the four E approach.
h. Use semantically responsive talk.
i. Use infant-directed speech.
j. Use questions and control carefully.
k. Listen with your eyes.
l. Read, sing, use finger-plays and social games like peek-a-boo.
  1. The quality of the environment and teachers’ use of responsive and sensitive language strategies are related to children’s language development.
  2. Use routine-based intervention strategies.