I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on articulation on Mommy Speech Therapy, which is such a huge topic that I could write about it for days! However, for this post I’d like to switch gears a bit and talk about some of the fundamental tools to help our children acquire their first words. Turn-taking and imitation are among the first techniques used to encourage communication from our infants and toddlers.
From the time our babies make their very first sounds we begin to teach them all about communication. It starts when we respond to that first cry by picking them up to comfort them, feed them or change them. When we do this they receive a message that their cry gets a reaction. As parents we have the opportunity to reinforce all their actions and vocalizations and help teach them how to use these powerful tools for communication. We reinforce their actions and vocalizations every time we respond to them. When we respond to actions or vocalizations by imitating them we send them a message that we are aware of what they have said or done, and in turn they become more aware of us.
A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to lie on the floor and play with my adorable 12 month old nephew, Lucas. He had a car in his hand and he was shaking it while saying, “mmm, mmm.” I picked up a near by car and shook it in the same manner and made the same sound, “mmm, mmm.” He immediately looked up at me as if to say, “Hey, you want to play?” And we did.
As we played he continued to make the “mmm, mmm” sound for his car, and I continued to imitate him. By doing this I was able to keep the interaction going which resulted in reinforcing the concept of turn taking in conversation. After awhile he seemed to anticipate my turn by looking up at me and waiting for me to imitate him. When he did I tried introducing a new sound to our play. I said, “beep, beep” for my car and he in turn said, “bee, bee.” This exemplifies how turn-taking and imitation can help our children learn new actions, sounds or words to improve their communication skills.
We use actions to communicate when we wave bye-bye, blow a kiss or when we shake our heads no. We can use turn-taking and imitation to train these skills by first imitating whatever actions we observe our babies or toddlers doing. For example, if your child is banging a block on a chair, wait until he stops, then you pick up a block and begin to bang it on the chair. If he throws the block down, you throw your block down. If he begins to giggle, you giggle. You’ll notice that he will eventually become aware of you and on your turn you may be able to introduce banging the block twice, and when he imitates you be sure to recognize what a powerful thing this can be. By taking turns imitating him, he will eventually take turns imitating you and you will then be able to introduce more meaningful actions like signs.
The same goes for teaching new sounds. Let’s say the only sounds your child makes are “Ooh” and “Ahh.” When he vocalizes “Ooh” you say “Ooh” when he says “Ahh” you say “Aah.” Then after awhile try introducing a new sound like “Eee” and see if he will try to imitate you. It is important to remember that by only changing the routine a little (adding one new sound or action) makes it more likely that your child will be successful in imitating you back. If we jump too far ahead, for example going from “Oooh” to “juice” your child may make no attempt at imitation. In this situation you would want to use turn-taking and imitation to teach new vowels and eventually new consonants.
We can introduce new words in the very same way. If you are playing cars and your child says, “go” and pushes the car to you. Push the car back and say, “go car.” You have imitated him and then added one new word. This will help reinforce his existing vocabulary while expanding on it at the same time.
Games like pushing cars back and forth, putting shapes in a shape sorter, or blowing bubbles are all great activities for implementing turn-taking and imitation. It is easy to manipulate those activities for “my turn,” “your turn,” as well as adding a sound to each part of the activity. When you add a sound or word like, “in” while putting a shape in the shape sorter try giving your child a little extra time to imitate you before you take another turn. I sometimes cover the hole on the shape sorter and look at them expectantly until they make some kind of attempt at imitation, then I uncover the hole and reinforce their attempt by saying something like, “in, you said in!” Try manipulating your play a little to allow for more turn-taking and imitation and I’m sure you will be excited to find out what your little ones are truly capable of.
While I have provided a few examples of how to implement turn-taking and imitation to encourage those first actions, sounds and words there are so many other great ways of implementing these tools that provide great results. Be creative and good luck!