The Gift of Language


Learn to encourage your little one’s communication and language development at home, writes Laura Kelly & Lisa O’Brien

As behaviour specialists who work with a lot of young children in the process of acquiring language and developing communication skills, we have found these strategies and techniques to be extremely effective.

Communication can be both verbal and non-verbal.

In fact, some research suggests that body language makes up to 55% of communication, 38% tone of voice and just 7% for words.

Have you ever picked up your phone to read an email or text message and thought “woah, you’re moody”, or “less of the tone, please”.

Through these methods of communication we’re missing more than 90% of the message! We apply a tone of voice to a message that probably does not even exist!!

Through a different lens

As behaviour specialists we look at language and communication through a different lens, a behaviour lens. Everything we do is behaviour, eating, sleeping, walking, reading and so on is communicating.

Understanding others (i.e., receptive language) and expressing oneself (i.e. expressive language) using words, gestures, expressions are the skills we use to  communicate.

We like to break language into different verbal operants; requesting, labelling, filling in the blanks (intraverbals) and attempt to understand these verbal operants language through the motivation that is associated with each of them.


As we all know, language is not the only method of communication.

Young children use many methods of nonverbal communication and encouraging and reinforcing these set the stage for speech and language to come.

Nonverbal communication begins to occur at a very early stage, even before pointing or other gestures.

For babies, they first begin requesting by crying and screaming, we interpret the cry as a request for food or a nap.

When we tickle babies and stop, they look at us, this eye contact is a request for us to continue tickling them.

As they get older, they may begin to point to different objects and items as a request. Although non-verbal, these are methods children use to request.

Great expectations 

When we request, our motivation and expectation is that we will get what we asked for.

Once we know what a child absolutely loves we can create many interactions for them.

The method that they request through is dependent on their age and ability.

The ideas suggested can be used to encourage all types of requesting including eye contact, pointing, one word requests or multiple word requests.


Firstly, sanitise your child’s toys.

By sanitise, I don’t mean get a spray to clean all the toys.

Instead, ensure that your child’s play space is not overloaded with toys.

Through putting toys in boxes and in sight but out of reach we are creating motivation for your child to engage with them and thus request them.

If the toys are always freely available, we are limiting your child’s opportunities to request.

If your child goes between lots of different toys, it may be a good idea to put some of the toys on rotation.

These can be changed every couple of days or weeks.

Now that the room is sanitised and we have motivation, your child may request by pointing to the toy they want, seek you out and bring you to the toy, or ask you for the toy.

We can then layer these requests with more language.

For example if the toy is on the box, we could then create an opportunity for your child to say open, if they want more items from the box they can ask for more or if they want everything in the box we can give the language for “give me please” and so on.

Wait and then some 

There are a few different tips to tempt a child to communicate and one of the easiest ways is waiting. Waiting tempts your child to make something happen.

What are we waiting for?


Then we can respond.

Get ready to go outside and when you get to the door, wait; give them food in a package they can’t open and wait;  hand them their meals with no utensils and wait.

This provides multiple opportunities for communication.

Illusion of choice

Creating opportunities for your child to make choices throughout the day is another great way to encourage requesting.

It involves creating choices even when there is no real choice.

We like to call this an illusion of choice between two items.

For example your child might always eat toast for breakfast however we can ask them ‘do you want toast or cereal?’, ‘do you want to wear blue or green socks?’, ‘do you want to eat with a fork or spoon?’, ‘do you want milk or juice?

Kids generally love making the choice, it gives them some control over their day.

Can you imagine what it would feel like if every single meal, drink and step of your day was planned out?

It’s nice to have a bit of choice!

Also, what it is really doing is building communication skills.

If your child is not yet talking, this can also be used by encouraging gestures to the items such as pointing to the one they want.

Key to communication

Another fun way to encourage language is to encourage back and forth communication.

This is the foundation skills for conversing and the key to communication.

The first steps of teaching this reciprocal communication are usually songs or fill ins such as 1,2, (3), the sheep says (baa), Ready, steady, (go).

With these, your child is learning that communication is reciprocal and works both ways.

These can then be expanded to answering different questions about him/ herself, different items and on various topics.

There are a lot of different areas of communication and expanding your child’s communication.

Take it one step at a time, observe  where their communication skills currently are and begin from there.

The goal should always be to help your child to reach the next level of complexity.

For example, if your child is using one word to request, your next goal could be modelling and use two and three words.

Follow your child’s lead and take it at their pace.

Laura and Lisa are behaviour specialists who offer support to children, families and school. For more information on language development or support with other areas of development, click here or call 085 2737466.


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