Preverbal much? Notes on my 2 year old's Speech Development

And now for something not Loka related...

Nava has made huge strides in her gross and fine motor development. Her social skills rock. Her feeding and eating are, well, typically toddler. One area I don't get into much on Navagating is her speech. This morning, while stacking blocks with Noi (she's so happy to be home and reunited with her blocks again!), Nava stacked two blocks and annouced "gaeng"--that's Lao for "well done." She continued to say it quite a few more times so it's definitely on the word list now.

In full confession mode, the primary reason I don't talk Speech much is because I don't have so much to brag about in this department. Nava's receptive language skills are superb in Lao and English and her signing is okay (I think it could easily get better if *we adults* worked on ours). Speechwise though, Nava struggles. She learned to say "yeah" quite a while ago and along with 'this' it represents the vast majority of her talking. We used to hear 'fish' but not recently. I think she's saying 'boh' or Lao for 'no' but I wonder if I'm just projecting since it's in consistent.

Speech is the one area we haven't done well getting 'expert' help-we've never really liked and/or gotten much out of the speech therapists we've pursued. The books I have on the subject are good but I find it hard to translate into the day-to-day. I think working on her reading would help her a lot but I gave that up a while back.

While we were in Bali however, Nava definitely started to show some new interest and skills in speech. She clearly says Dad and Daddy (not Mama though. Of course ::eyeroll::). She has a new much more dramatic version of yeah--she really drags it out and punches it--it's a very OTT delivery and is used when she's having fun, playing and joking. She started talking in for own language too. For me, this is more than babble as from her demeanor and delivery it really seems these are words to her. She "reads" books aloud in this new language-for-one even.

One day I decided to really try to ask her to repeat words after me (something we rarely do). I said ball multiple times and asked her to say it if she wanted the ball. She signed it, I asked her to say it. She pointed and said "this". I asked her to say it. Finally, she said 'ball' a couple of times. It was very clear that it took a lot of work on her part--she had to focus and concentrate to get it out. After saying it a few times, she refused to again and reverted to "this!" which is much easier for her to get out. I've read about Apraxia in the Down syndrome population and wonder if this is perhaps part of the package with Nava but have no one go see about it in these parts.

I've written this post partially to document where we are at the moment and partially to motivate myself to really give Nava's speech my focus in the coming months. My rough action plan consists of:
-(re)reading Play to Talk and It takes Two To Talk
-joining the James MacDonald's Yahoo group
-possibly ordering his instructional DVDs (as I can show these to the family directly rather than having to be the one who reads and then teaches like with books
-getting back to reading. Just not sure in what form yet.
-and to start, i'm gonna try to edit down a great article (see below) someone recently posted on a group I'm on and try to use that to talk to everyone in the family so we're on the same page in this regard. If talking is an issue in your house, I recommend giving it a read. It covers a lot of things I know I need to remember and do better on.

Anyone else DIYing speech therapy these days? Have any tips? Some been-there-done-that wisdom? Do tell!


                                                                    James MacDonald  Communicating Partners

This is in response to a parent asking about the causes of her child not talking.  My book Communicating Partners discusses this in great detail,. This is a a  summary for you to keep handy  as a valuable  guide to help your child talk. Avoid wasting time  on the causes. Use that time to get the job done with the strategies below.

Many wonder why a child is not talking.
Surprise! You can  help  him  talk without knowing why he isn’t!!
After 40 years of clinical and research work with “late-talking” children, I find the answer is complex both in the child’s make up and his  interactions.  Many speculate on the reasons and generally get nowhere. A better path is to see how we can get the child communicating more. Thousands of parents and others have helped children become talkers without really knowing why he was a late-talker. 
Let’s not waste precious time looking to causes when we now know what we can do to help a child develop communicatively.

First of all, let’s ask: Where does a child learn to communicate and talk best?  Often when a child is language delayed, parents look to therapists or teachers to help.  Professionals can help but mainly when they are teaching parents how to do it in the home.   Families have the most contacts with a child and the one thing that it takes is constant interactive contacts that fit the child’s developmental world.

You will get much further by asking, “How can I help my child communicate and talk? than “Why is he not talking?"       Unless there are notable medical reasons, which are very rare, we will never know why. But we do know now how to help him become a talker.

Forty years of research reveal many strategies and events that help a child communicate.  Before we get to them, let’s summarize the common problems that interfere with a child learning to talk.

1.    Not enough interaction.  Often  “late-talking children"  interact less with people. If a child is not interacting he is not getting practice or models for what to do.
2.    Overstimulation. Many children are in constant situations where others are talking so much that the child cannot try to do what he can do.
3.     Ignoring the little steps.   Often people do not respond to the sounds and movements that the child must do before he talks.  Every sound and movement can become a word but not if  it is ignored.
4.    Pressure to do the impossible.  Often well-meaning adults try to get a child to talk before he is ready. Then both the child and adults come to believe he cannot talk. Then he gets less practice and success.
5.    Not enough sounding practice.  Making sounds is easy for some and very difficult for others. When a child does not readily move from sounds to words, he needs more practice and modeling from people who sound in ways he can do.
6.    Not enough meaningful play.   Play is the developmental work of a child. If he does not play much in different ways, he is not having much to communicate about. The more a child plays, the more meanings he will develop. And those meanings are the basis of words. 
7.    Learned helplessness. Often when a child is not developing as expected, adults do things he really can do for himself. And so he let others do for him.  Adults often talk for a child who can try a little.
8.    Imbalance in interactions.  Often adults will take many more turns and talk so much that a child won't try.   Children  need time to communicate and it is difficult for adults to wait silently and allow the child to do what he can.
9.    Developmental steps are not enough. Adults are anxious for words and so they do not support the little sound and action steps that children must do  to learn to  speak.  When children's little steps are not supported, they do less of them and so talk less.
10.                  Too little social language.  When a child is a delayed adults  frequently focus on teaching words for school and not words for things  the child needs to communicate and describe his world.  He may learn language as something to imitate or answer but not to use to interact daily with his family.
11.   Little chance to communicate.  Many late talking children are given little opportunity to practice talking. The competent people around him often run the verbal show and he does not get  enough practice.
12.  Too much correction or criticism.  When a child is corrected or criticized for the way he talks, he is likely to talk and practice less.  We need to realize that the child is not making mistakes, he is taking developmental steps.

In our decades of clinical research with over 2000 families we have found many reliable ways that help children talk. They are easy and  can happen anytime.

First, lets ask the question: “What does your child need to do before he is a constant talker? 
Very few people understand what children and parents need to do before speech. So the first answer to the question- When will my child talk?  is when he interacts frequently with people who are doing actions and sounds he can do.  A major finding is that children talk more when they interact more with possible people. ‘Possible’ here means people who are interacting and communicating in ways the child can do.

So, first a child must interact frequently. He cannot be a loner. He needs to initiate, respond, imitate, and take turns with people who are acting and communicating in ways he can do.  Too often a late-talking child lives in a world with many more words and actions that he can do. It is a lonely, and impossible world. We must make learning easier for the child.

Then, the child needs to communicate, that is,  send and respond to messages with any actions or sounds he can do.  Most adults are anxious for a child to say words and they do not support the child’s soundings, which are critical steps to word.
When many adults try to get a child to talk, they rush to language too soon and the child and adult both think he cannot talk because the models and expectations are impossible for the child.

Use the strategies below to help your child talk. They have proved to be successful in thousands of children.
1.    Play in his world so he will interact more with you.
2.     Match his actions. Do things he can do so he acts more like you. These will be his first communications.
3.    Match his communications.  Communicate in ways the child does and can try. Many adults talk  in ways a child cannot do.
4.    Get into his world of sounds and actions.   You are used to a world of thought and language but he is not ready for that.  Many late talking children need a great deal of social sounding, that is, making sounds back and forth with people who are showing next steps. 

5.     Translate sounds and actions into words.  When you do not understand your child imitate then translate what he does into one or two words showing him the next step.
6.    Play frequent sounding games.   Sounds are like balls to a child wanting to be a baseball player. Just as you would throw balls back and forth many times with such a child, you will benefit by throwing sounds back and forth with your child so he gets the practice to learn  and say sounds more clearly.
7.    Balance with your child by doing only as much as he is doing with sounds or words. He needs time to practice.
8.    Wait silently and do not talk for your child.  He needs time and he will talk less if you talk more.  The less you talk when interacting, the more he will talk.  It is so easy to talk for your child and then he gets little practice.

Finding the causes of  "late-talking"  is much less important than finding the solutions. And many solutions are in the ways parents and others interact daily with the child.

Look at your child and ask:
How often do people do the strategies above?
How possible, patient and interesting are they? Be honest. People may occasionally talk about his play or imitate him, but a late talking child needs a constant life of these strategies. And once a week isolated therapy will not do it. It must be a frequent way of life.  Parents need to be a matched and balanced and responsive playmate not a therapist or teacher.

The causes are in the past:
 The solutions are in the present.
 You can be the cause of your child talking more.

For more guidelines see the book Play to Talk (2007) and Communicating Partners (2004)
Dr. Jim MacDonald



  1. That is such a great resource and a great reminder. Just last night I was telling my husband he needs to wait for Cora to respond, and give her more time to practice. I was telling myself to do that too! Nava sounds like she is making some great strides. I'm glad to hear how she's doing!

  2. 2 is not actually that late for our kids...and it sounds like she's able to mimic speech and sounds, which would make me think that apraxia is not an issue (although I'm not an expert!). I think she sounds like she's pretty on-track! I love that she repeated "ball" when you worked so closely with her. Even though she didn't say it again, it doesn't mean that she hasn't stored it up for future use when *she's* ready. Also, because she only recently became a full-time walker, she may have a big increase in her verbal development. Our kids sometimes can't do both at once - learn to walk and learn to talk - and speech will often take a back-seat to a gross-motor explosion. Be patient, be consistent, and keep working on the signs - she'll get it! :-)


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