Using Turn Taking & Imitation to Encourage Communication

Using Turn Taking & Imitation to Encourage Communication

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.

Using Turn Taking & Imitation to Encourage Communication - Mommy Speech Therapy
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!


  1. hi
    I find turn taking a very exciting game for children to learn & play.
    My son 3 1/2 with DS. there are 2 more kids at home.
    We play games like hide & seek or any other game like throw ball. i use to involve my son Noni in game since he was 2 years old. earlier he would rush to the place or indicate by his hand to himself telling its his turn.i would repeat ” o its Noni’s Turn” Emphsizing on Noni. now he has started speaking one word he shouts, my my or Noni Noni – for his turn.

    Kids love moving games, So it would be very helpful.


  2. Turn taking and imitation – not just for infants and toddlers!

  3. Hello Heidi,

    I like using ball tossing activities for encouraging turn taking. A simple game of catch is a good way to incorporate turn taking skills. You can even literally target the word “catch” when playing catch! For younger kids, even a simple “Aaah” as an approximation of catch will do.

    Great post, Heidi! Would you mind if I share this post on my website? Some of my audience have been asking me tips on turn taking and I think this post is great advice.

    Let me know if it’s ok.

    Speech Friend

  4. My son has speech or commmunication delays. He can make sounds such as hi or b sound as in ball or block. He use to say dada around 12 months now he doesn’t say it anymore at all. He has been evaluated by a speech therapist yet she hasn’t started with activities yet. Until she does I’d like to know what i could be doing. He will be 2 in august of this year. He going to be in an early interevention program from 9-2 in the fall in aug. I’d like to help before then some.

  5. Shelby,

    I am happy to hear you have accessed early intervention services for your little guy. What a blessing. I am sure you will be pleased with the progress he will make. In the mean time I would label, label, label. When your little guy is around talk about everything you are doing, and everything he is doing. He will benefit from the rich language environment and all the repetition. For example, if you are taking the clothes out of the dryer invite him to help you and say, “Out, I am taking the clothes out. Out.” If he pitches in you would say, “Out, you are taking the clothes out. Out.” This is called parallel talk and language expansion. The second thing I would focus on is getting involved in his play. Don’t try to direct the play, follow his lead. If he is only interested in running circles around the room, run circles around the room with him, but while you are running be sure to talk about what you are doing and what he is doing. For example, “Run. We are running. I like running.”

    I hope this gives you somewhere to start. Good luck with early intervention. I am sure you will see progress soon!

  6. There is a “special time” around twelve to sixteen months of age where children will attempt direct imitation of almost any sound! It’s a fun time to check for stimulability of speech sounds, too. My little boy used to try any sound I would throw at him when he was this age.

  7. Great work Heidi…………. this post has been so useful to me………. MOMMY SPEECH THERAPY WEBSITE itself is a boon for all speech therapist

  8. Thank you SO much for this! My 21mth old son has been attending a global developmental class (he has an overall 17% delay) while he’s been waiting for his name to come up on the wait list for speech therapy (he finally got the call & starts in a month). His Global Development Class teacher kept telling me to “imitate him.” So I was, but didn’t really understand why and they didn’t ever say anything about how to add new sounds. Whenever I asked for suggestions on what to do at home, they just said, “Talk to him a lot and imitate any sounds he makes.” That was it. It was so frustrating. As I was reading this I just kept thinking “THAT’s what they were talking about!” It was like a light bulb going on. I can’t wait for my son to wake up in the morning so I can try this!

    When they assessed him a little over a month ago they said he had 35% delay in speech/language. At that time he was using 8 words (and frequently used most) and within a week he picked up two more. One week later he had a 24hr stomach virus which seemed to traumatize him and for a week and a half afterward he wouldn’t say ANY words and would only occasionally communicate in any way! After that he started communicating again, but his words just haven’t come back the way they were. He now only says one word multiple times a day, another one he says every other day, a third he’ll say once or twice a week, and a fourth he has said twice in the last 6 weeks. 🙁 That’s it.

    I’ve scheduled him for a reevaluation of his speech as well as a hearing test, but I have to wait a month for both. He has used up his allotted GDC’s (too many kids, too few classes) and I’ve been feeling somewhat desperate to know what I can do to help while I wait for the experts. Thank you SO much for this site! I can’t wait to read more. 🙂

  9. Hi Kathleen,

    I am so glad you found this article helpful! When I read about your son’s loss of language following his illness I was thinking you need to have him reevaluated. It sounds like you are going to do just that. In fact by now, I imagine you have had the reevaluation and are in therapy. I hope it all went well!


  10. Hi Heidi,

    Thank you so much, you have created such a wonderful site and it is such a gift to us Moms…
    I do have a request to you, i would love to see you write for kids with special needs. They have the biggest challenges with Speech and to be able to know as parents how we can help them to improve speech , articulation, receptive and expressive language would be much more helpful, like oral activities that might strengthen their mouth for speech…

    Would love to hear your view points on it.

  11. Hi Sireesha,

    I created Mommy Speech Therapy for all moms, including moms of kids with special needs. I appreciate your suggestions though. I will try to include a section where I write more directly to moms of kids with special needs in the future.

    Hopefully I will be able to get to a post about improving oral-motor skills soon. In the meantime I would suggest you talk with your Speech Language Pathologist about oral motor exercises to practice with your child or look into Sara Rosenfeld Johnson’s Talk Tools for Oral Motor Therapy.

    All the best!

  12. Hello Heidi,

    I just want to ask your opinion as a speech pathologist. My daughter is already 4 years old and she isn’t that much of a conversationalist at home. She only speaks in short sentences when she wants to say something. But we observed her to be very good in memorization and monologues. Her teacher in preschool says she doesn’t talk that much in school but when she gets home she’s really very active.

    Her pediatrician said it could be because she grew up to be the only child at home and she rarely sees other children in the neighborhood. She also suggested that schooling will help improve my child’s speech. I’m just worried that she might be having a serious speech problem or delay and that it may affect her interaction at school. By the way, she masters songs and dances very quickly and I’m wondering why she can’t voice out her ideas in proper sentences. Should I send her to a speech therapist already? And will the therapy interfere with her schooling?

    Thank you very much for your help.


  13. Hi Lei,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I would recommend you see a Speech Language Pathologist for an evaluation. They could help you determine if your daughter’s speech and language skills are in fact delayed and what may be causing the delay. They can also help give her the support she needs to get her language on track.

    In my opinion, if speech therapy is needed it can only improve her school experience by enriching her interactions with those around her.

    I hope this helps!

  14. Hi Heidi, this is my first time here. My son is 26 weeker and is 14 months actual age and 11 months corrected. He is very active n plays on his own, responds to strangers with smile and sounds like excited “oh” sounds but does not do other gesture like nodding head for “no” yes. He just crys or fuss or pull my leg if he is hungry or diaper change or needs nap. He is not interested in books (just bites them ) and not interested when I play with him. What would you recommend for me to interact with him to improve his language and speech developments?

    Thank you

  15. Hi Babina,

    My first recommendation would be to figure out what does interest him. Is it balls, bubbles, trains, bath time, peek-a-boo, swinging, slides, treats, soft things, playing outside, interactive devices like iPads or anything else? Knowing what interests him will give you a tool to manipulate for encouraging more communicative attempts and eventually more language. For example, if he is motivated by playing with water you may sit him in the bathtub and let the water run (but don’t plug the drain), let him play in the running water for a minute and then turn the water off. When he gets upset model a sign or word that he can use or say to get what he wants. In this example you might sign “water” while saying water aloud and looking at him with a questioning glance asking him with your tone if he would like more water. If he makes no attempt at the sign or word then take his hand and help him put his fingers to his mouth to make the sign for water. It doesn’t have to be perfect it just has to show communicative intent. As soon as you have done this reinforce him by saying, “Oh, you want more water.” Then turn the water back on and let him continue to play in the water. Do little exercises like this one as often as you can throughout the day. Remember frequency and consistency make all the difference.

    I hope this helps!