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From First Words to Sentences

From First Words to Sentences

The Journey of Childhood Self-Expression

Written by Sholeh Shahinfar, MA, CCC-SLP

Published by AUTISM ADVOCATE Parenting Magazine

The moment your little one says that first word is filled with magic, excitement and a whole new world of opportunities. Your little one has spoken the first word, and you are so excited for what is to come. So, what comes next? What can you do to help turn words into phrases and sentences?

At the outset, I would like to offer a quick reminder that childhood speech and language development is highly individualized and includes many layers. Although developmental milestones can be helpful guidelines, they should not be interpreted as indicating exactly where your child needs to be. Simply use milestones as guideposts in your child’s growth.

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How Do I Know My Child is Ready to Combine Words?

You will know your children are ready to combine words when they have two ideas that they want to express. For example, if your little one wants to be picked up and says, “mama,” to get your attention (idea 1) and puts his or her arms up (idea 2), then your child is ready to begin combining words. Your little one is pairing a word with a symbolic gesture in a message that has two ideas: to get your attention; and to be picked up.

Typically, children begin combining two words together between 18 and 24 months of age. Known as telegraphic speech, this practice involves combining a noun and a verb, such as “mommy eat” or “sleep baby.” Many children can use about 40 verbs by 24 months of age. If your toddler isn’t there yet, don’t worry!

Before your child even begins putting two ideas or words together, you need to make sure your child understands various word types.

What is a Word Type?

Typically, our little ones learn nouns first; they label things in their environment and pictures in books. A great way to begin exposing children to more language is by expanding what they are saying. For example, if your child sees the garbage truck go by and says, “truck,” you can expand by saying, ”Yes, that’s a big truck.” If your child points to a bird in the sky and says, “bird,” you can expand by saying “Fly bird.”

First Words

The foundation to expressive language is receptive language, or the language that we understand. If your little ones are only using nouns, they aren’t able to effectively communicate their wants and needs. That’s why you want to make sure your children understand a concept before being asked to use it. So, how can you make sure your child understands other word types besides nouns? Try asking your child to do the following.

  • Point to actions in pictures, such as the boy who is eating.
  • Point to actions in pictures, such as the boy who is eating.
  • Follow directions, such as jumping when asked.
  • Point to colors, sizes and other adjectives, such as the red truck, an item that is big, or something that is small.

The next step is to begin modeling and narrating verbs and other word types throughout your daily routines, and creating the opportunities to use them. In addition to nouns, such as people, places and things, and verbs, like run, sleep, go and want, the following are some other word types:

  • Adjectives, like hot, big, yellow, fast
  • Adjectives, like hot, big, yellow, fast
  • Prepositions, such as in, out, on, under
  • Social Words, like hi, bye-bye
  • Pronouns, including me, I, you, mine
  • Requests, such as more, again, all done
  • Negation, like no, can’t, don’t.

How Can I Support My Child?

I’ve touched on a few ways to support your child’s progression from words to phrases and sentences, but I’d like to recap and expand on the topic.

•  Expansion is one of the greatest ways to model word combinations for your child. If your child is just using one word now, like “dog,” take that word and add on an extra word, such as “brown dog.” If your child is using two to three words, like “brown dog,” take those words and add more, such as “the brown dog is running.”

•  Emphasize the important words to draw them to your little one’s attention. A great time to do this is when you model language, narrate, and use expansion. When your child says, “dog,” you say, “brown dog,” with added emphasis on “brown” so that your child tunes into the new word that you just said. The more you emphasize, the more your little one will tune into the new word. This helps boost language development.

•  Choices are a great way to elicit word combinations. Here is one of my favorite tricks: if your child loves to play with balls, Legos, cars, or whatever it may be, get out a ton of the objects in various colors and sizes and keep them in your lap or in a box. If your child requests a “ball,” take out two or three at a time, and say “Hmm, which one?” See if your child will expand his or her own language to clarify the request by asking, for example, for the “green ball” or the “big ball.” If your little one has difficulty independently using two words here, offer choices using just two words. Hold up each object as you name it and ask, for example, “Green ball or red ball?”

•  Gestures and signs provide another way of learning and developing language. When you give your child more water, pair the sign for “more” with the spoken word and say, “more water.” Pairing gestures with words boosts your child’s understanding of language, which in turn will support his or her expression of language.

•  Repetition is one of the greatest tools to help develop understanding and use of language. The more you repeat, the more your child hears, which means the more opportunities to learn!

•  Respond and acknowledge your little one’s attempts at communication. For example, if your child says, “Daddy goed outside,” acknowledge the communication and respond by providing the correct grammar: ”That’s right, daddy went outside.” Don’t forget to emphasize the word you want your child to learn.

Fun Activities to Get you Started

I always tell my families that expanding a child’s language should be something that is happening naturally. The opportunities happen every day, all the time. Some fun activities you can use as part of your daily routine are listed below.

•  Create a fun washing or bathing game. You can do this during bath time or play by filling up a bucket with water and grabbing a bunch of toys. Target the verb “wash” and describe what you are doing. For example, say, “wash hands,” “wash head,” “wash feet.”

• Use the words your child already knows. Use the nouns that your little one knows, and create opportunities to expand to phrases and sentences. For example, when your child requests a “cookie” for a snack, offer instead small pieces of the cookie each time and model “more cookie” or “want cookie.” If your child is already at this phase, then increase it to “I want cookie” or “I want more cookie.”

• Create a “bye-bye box” or “gone box.” Get a box or bin to use when you are cleaning up activities or toys. Have your child put the object in the box while saying, “bye-bye teddy,” or “teddy gone.” You can also use this activity to include prepositions, such as “teddy in” or “teddy in box.”

• Play, play, play all day! There are so many opportunities to work on receptive language skills through play. Take advantage of every opportunity to narrate, model and expand language so that your little one is learning and using new words!

This is such an exciting time filled with so many celebrations! Keep in mind, however, that part of the celebration is embracing all of it, including the setbacks and the struggles. Be sure to encourage your little one, expand on the use of current words, and provide chances to combine words together in a natural way. You can use the tips and tools outlined above to guide you. Remember that you are an important part of the process on your child’s journey of self-expression!

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