How Should I Talk to My Child to Develop Language Skills?


Your child is not born knowing what words mean and how to use them.

You may say, “Of course I know that!”  But are we acting like we know that? Are we acting like every single word our child needs to know he has to learn from us??

When my daughter was a baby I would tell my nephew,  “She doesn’t know what words mean, so you have to teach them to her!” It was always so cute. While she would lay there babbling and cooing playing with her toys, my nephew would walk over and say “This is a car! It goes fast!” This is what we should be doing as parents! Sometimes we may feel dumb talking to a child who won’t talk back to us, but if you want your child to learn how to talk, you need to talk to him!

Here are 2 of my biggest pieces of advice in how to talk to your children to help facilitate language development.


First of all, just talk to them. Narrate

Eventually you want your child to independently follow directions. You want him to go upstairs to his room and get his shoes when asked. However, he isn’t born automatically knowing how to do this! Beyond the fact that your child can’t walk when he is born, he also does not have the language skills to comprehend and follow these directions.

When your child is too young to go upstairs and get his shoes, you have to do it. Take him with you and teach him so one day he’ll understand how to do it on his own. Just narrate what is happening. “Let’s walk upstairs to your room!” As you walk into the room you say “Let’s find your shoes! Shoes, where are you? Oh, here they are! They’re behind the chair. Let’s put them on so we can go bye bye.” How many words did your child just learn in that simple narration? He learned that those funny box things are called stairs; he learned that the place they sleep is called their room; he learned that those things you put on feet are called shoes; and he learned that you have to put on your shoes to go bye-bye. So as your child grows, when you ask him to get his shoes, he’ll know what to look for and (maybe) where to find them!

When you narrate every single thing you do, you teach your child the words to go with the actions or objects he sees and the feelings he has. Just today I was at the library with my one-year-old. She pointed to a picture on the wall and said something I couldn’t understand--baby talk. I said “Oh yea, that’s a little boy reading a book!” Now she knows what was in that picture and the words to describe it.  Eventually she’ll be able to tell me, “Mama, look at that boy reading a book!” But right now it is my job to teach her all the words she needs to know and how to put those words together to make a meaningful thought.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for your child to point to something to narrate it. As you’re walking through the freezer section at the grocery store, say, “Oh it’s so cold! Brrr. I need a jacket!” What did your child learn? He learned that the feeling he is having is called cold. And he learned that when it’s cold you wear a jacket. After your child learns the word cold and jacket, you could switch it up and use the words freezing and coat. It is so much easier for children to learn these words in real life circumstances than from a vocabulary list in 2nd grade.

Repeat back to your child what he said  (or what you think he said)

My next piece of advice when talking with your child is to repeat back to him what he said. You can still do this even if you don’t know exactly what he said. Based on what he’s pointing to or what’s around you, you can just guess and talk about what you see. This is how your child will learn language. Repeating what a child says back to him communicates that he is heard--that communication is rewarding because someone will talk back. He will learn that communication is give and take, not just a monologue. This also allows your child to hear the correct production of words and sounds. Remember, every word your child knows he has to learn from you.

Say your child is starting to talk. And he uses word approximations for an object. For example, he might use the word “baba” for the word bottle. Of course that is cute, and it’s really tempting to start calling it a “baba” yourself. But do you want your child to go to Kindergarten saying the word “baba?” If you don’t tell your child the correct word he may never learn it until it’s really embarrassing! So he points to his bottle and says “baba.” You say, “Yes, here’s your bottle! Are you ready to drink your bottle?” And eventually as your child’s language skills and speech skills develop, he’ll start getting closer and closer to the adult production of the word.

My daughter loves blueberries. Every single morning when I get her out of bed she says “Bubu!” That’s her way of saying blueberries. Most other adults wouldn’t know what that means, but I do because I’m her mom, and I’m around her all day everyday. But say her grandparents are taking care of her and she says “bubu!” They wouldn’t know what that means. It’s important for her to start to learn to use the adult form of the word so that everybody understands what she is saying, not just her mom! So when she asks for blueberries and says “bubu” I say “Oh you want blueberries?” And she’ll say “Bubu!” And each day, because she has heard the word blueberries over and over (and over), her production of the word gets closer and closer to the adult form.

Just a few examples to get you started

  1. While changing your child’s diaper-”Let’s change your diaper because you’re dirty! I need to use some wipes to clean you up. Do those wipes feel cold? All done! Now we can get down and play!”

  2. Getting in the car-”Let’s get in the car so we can go to school. Hop into your carseat. Let me buckle you to keep you safe.”

  3. Brushing teeth-”It’s time to brush your teeth! Let’s walk into the bathroom. Let’s get the toothpaste. We need to squeeze it onto your toothbrush. Now brush the top teeth. Now let’s brush the bottom teeth. Now let’s rinse our teeth and our brush to keep them clean!”

The scenarios in which language development can occur are endless!

I know talking constantly may get exhausting, especially if your child can’t talk back yet. But one day your child will likely talk your ear off, and you’ll get to do a lot more listening!

Following this advice is a general guideline to help facilitate language development in children. If you find, after implementing this, that your child is still behind in language development, give us a call. We would love to work with you and your child!

For more information:

Check out this article on a longitudinal research study going on about talking to your children