Two Brain Training Techniques to Super Charge your Toddler’s Language Learning

Hopefully by now, you have had some practice turning your questions into statements, or at the very least, cutting down on the number of questions you fire at your child.  Remember, questions create pressure and that pressure causes conversation shut-down.  So if you are not asking questions, and you are not sure what to say instead, stay tuned.  In this post, I am going to focus on younger children who are not yet speaking in full sentences.

The first and easiest brain training technique I’m going to share is called commenting.  Commenting involves just that, commenting on what you see your child doing or what you are doing when you are together, whether you are playing, getting dressed in the morning, going shopping or whatever.   This technique is especially effective for children who are more reticent talkers.  The key here to maximizing language learning is to keep your comments at a level just above the level of language that your child is producing.  For example: if your child consistently speaks in two word phrases, your comments are going to be 3-4 words in length.  If your child is at the one-word stage, you are going to use two-word phrases.  “But those phrases won’t have proper grammar!” you may be thinking.  No, they may not.  You are providing examples (also called modelling) of the next stage that they will be producing. When you model language that is at a slightly higher level than your child’s own level, you are providing targets for them to reach for.  It will be easier for them to reach the next level of development if they have been listening to oodles of examples from you to copy than if they only had models of language that is just far too advanced for them.

Learning language is like learning any other concept skill, to a large extent.  To learn a new math concept, you need to see and practice many examples.  If your teacher expected you to be able to solve equations involving a new math concept without providing lots of examples first, you may be hesitant to try it on your own, and would likely struggle quite a bit.  Language learning is the same way.  You want to pave the way for success without struggle.

Let me provide you with a few examples:

You and your 9 month old son, Rory, are playing with a ball rolling it back and forth.  Your son occasionally says single ‘words’ (they are more approximations; you do a lot of interpreting).   Your language model is going to be one-word or occasionally, two-word phrases.  As he rolls the ball to you, if he doesn’t say anything, you could say: “Whee!” or “ro-lling” (in a sing-song manner), or as you roll the ball to him, say his name “Ro-ry” (again in a sing-song manner).  If he throws the ball and it bounces away, you could say, “bouncing” or “bye-bye” as you wave to the ball.  You are giving your son lots of examples of what he could say at a level that is manageable for him.  With enough manageable examples, he may try to copy you sometime which is the first step to mastery.

In the same situation above, if your son is already at the one-word stage and he rolls the ball to you, you could say a two-word phrase such “go ball”.  As you roll it back quickly, you could say “fast ball”.  If the ball bounces away from you at some point you could say “bye-bye ball” as you watch it roll away.

Here’s an example with a slightly older child.

You and your two year old daughter, Laura, are playing dress up.  Laura is consistently speaking in two-word, and occasionally three-word phrases but she doesn’t use words to initiate.  Your daughter puts a hat on your head, looks at you and giggles.  You could say, “funny hat on mommy”, or “mommy wears funny hat”.  You could put a hat on her head (do what she does) and say “funny hat on Laura” or “clown hat on Laura” or “Laura, mommy play circus?”  These phrases are not grammatically correct, but we don’t expect children at this stage to speak in grammatically correct phrases, so you won’t either.  Don’t worry, she will still hear plenty of grammatically correct speech from you and others around her.

The second brain training technique I want to share is called expanding.  Expanding is taking a word or phrase that your child has said and rephrasing it back to them at a slightly higher language level.  It involves making an educated guess about the message your child was trying to convey, especially if they are only using one or two-word phrases to get their message across.  Let’s see how that would work using the scenarios from above:

Rory rolls the ball to you and says, “go!” (he could mean ‘look at the ball go’ or ‘I made the ball go’ or ‘go get the ball’).  You are going to make your best guess at what he meant to say and then expand the comment and reflect it back to him.  You could say, “go ball!” or “ball, go!” or “get ball!” (as you reach for the ball).  All are examples of a next-level version of what you think he might be trying to say.

Laura puts a hat on your head and looks at you and giggles.  You say, “funny hat on mommy”.   She puts a hat on her head and says, “Laura hat”.  You expand the comment and reflect it back to her saying, for example “Laura wears clown hat” or “Laura put on hat” or “Laura wears funny hat”.  In doing so you are providing Laura with examples of what she could say when she is ready to make the leap to the next stage of language development.

By using the brain training techniques of commenting on activities and giving your child expanded phrases,  you are providing their brains with many examples to absorb of what the next stage of language learning will sound like.  Their subconscious mind will go to work on all these examples and help prime the language centres of their brain to get ready to leap to the next stage of language development.


Listening: A Critical Ingredient for Language Learning

The ‘L’ in OWL stands for LISTENING.  Listening is often thought of as a passive activity but being a good listener means being an active participant.  This means that not only do you hear what is being said, but you process it and respond appropriately.  Being an active listener with a child means that your response to what they say builds on what they already said rather than taking the conversation elsewhere.  Let me provide an example:

2 year old Suzie is at Christmas dinner at Grandma’s house.  Suzie’s mom buckles her into her high chair, puts a small plate of dinner on her table, and gives her a spoon and fork.  Suzie’s mom then gets up to get her own plate of food.  Suzie says “Mommy, food.” (She could have meant ‘mommy, here’s my food’, or she could have meant ‘mommy’s going to get food now’ but we don’t know because nobody at the table responded to her comment).   Suzie’s mom goes to get her own plate, returns and sits down beside Suzie.  Again, Suzie says “Mommy, food.”  Suzie’s mom says, “Yes, here’s my dinner.  What colour is the broccoli?  Eat your dinner now.”

Suzie’s mom started out her comments in the right direction, taking Suzie’s comment of ‘mommy food’,  giving it meaning and repeating it back with more advanced syntax and vocabulary (‘yes, here’s my dinner’).  But then things go downhill because she asks a question and redirects Suzie according to her own agenda.  An improvement would have been to say, ‘Yes, here’s my dinner.  I can’t wait to eat my green broccoli, and turkey with red cranberry sauce; I am sooo hungry.’

This reply provides richer vocabulary: green, broccoli, turkey, red, cranberry, hungry, as well as language around cause and effect: ‘I eat because I am hungry’ being the subtext.  By sticking with Suzie’s comment and expanding on it rather than asking a question and then redirecting her daughter’s focus, mom would have provided a much richer language example for her and left room for Suzie to continue the exchange with her own comment rather than shutting down the conversation with ‘Eat your dinner now’.

By listening to your child and providing a more language rich response on a topic that your child is already engaged in, you are paving the way for conversation, something that asking questions tends to stop in it’s tracks.  Again, if you are used to peppering your child in an attempt to get them to talk more, this new approach will take some time and practice.  Stick with it; the results will be worth it!

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‘Patience is a Virtue’ How Waiting can Lead to Better Conversations with Your Child

Waiting: this is often difficult for parents – we want to jump right in and start directing play.  But if you can train yourself to observe first, figure out what your child is interested in (or make an educated guess), then you are well on your way to becoming a responsive conversation partner.  Waiting not only encourages your child to initiate interaction, it gives them time to respond to questions.

Did you know that adults typically give children only one second to respond before either repeating/rephrasing the question or providing the answer?  I can believe it; I am guilty of this one with my older children big time.  But expecting children to answer so quickly is an unrealistic expectation.  Children, especially younger ones learning language, need much longer than one second to process the question and figure out their answer. This is a good thing; children who reflect and take time before answering have been shown to do better in school than those who respond quickly and impulsively!  So give your child some breathing room; it will take the pressure off of them, give them a sense of control, and you will likely get an answer that you can build upon to further develop the conversation.

Okay, so now you have observed your child and waited for them to initiate….but what if they don’t?  Initiating doesn’t have to mean that they say something to you or look at you.  Their initiation doesn’t have to be directed at you.  It could be something as subtle as banging two toys together.  So what do you do?  Two things:  get down on their level so that you are face-to-face, and then do what they do.  So in this case you would pick up two same/similar toys and bang them together.  You may even say something such as ‘bang, bang’.  Then, you would……you got it: wait!  Wait to see how they respond to your attempt to engage with them.

If you have an older more verbal child you could make an observational comment about what they are doing.  Remember, no questions!  With a little practice, you can turn almost any question into a comment.  Here are a couple of examples:  Instead of: ‘What are you doing?’ try ‘Oh, I see you are (fill in activity).’  Instead of ‘What colour is your flower?’ try ‘I see you are colouring bright yellow daisies.’  Did you notice that commenting also exposes your child to a greater variety of vocabulary?  Give it a try.  It takes a little practice but once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature.

Wow, that was a lot!  If you have any questions about the information in this blog post or any previous ones, please send me a note at  

More next time on what you can do to be a good conversation partner.  See you then.

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