3 Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Use Their Words

child talking and using words with their parent

“My child knows a lot of words, but they just won’t say them!” 

Does this sound like any child you know? Oftentimes, children can understand many vocabulary words, and they may even be able to repeat those words or say some spontaneously, such as saying “ball” while kicking a soccer ball with their sister or “doggy” when the family Goldendoodle runs over to play. However, parents might first develop a concern with their child’s language skills when they realize that their child never really uses these words or combines them into phrases for a variety of communicative purposes, such as to make a request (i.e., “I want the ball!”), to make a comment (i.e., “Nice doggy!”), or to protest (i.e., “No bedtime!”).  

So, how can we get kids to start using the words that they know to express their wants, needs, and ideas, and start to combine those words into longer phrases and sentences?  As adults, we need to use language stimulation strategies while we interact with our children. If you think this sounds like something straight out of a textbook that would put both you and your child to sleep, I urge you to read on! I promise these strategies are a lot of fun, and they will enhance the way you interact with your child, while creating an optimal language learning environment in the process. 

child using word exercises with their parent

What’s a language stimulation strategy? 

Language stimulation strategies refer to general ways that we can interact with children that are known to increase their ability to understand and use language. Sometimes they involve changing the physical environment to increase language opportunities. Other times, they involve changing the way that you yourself are using words when interacting with your child. The fun part is this: the best way to use all of these strategies is when you are playing with your child OR when you are completing daily routines! (Think: bath time, mealtime, bedtime, driving to daycare… so many language opportunities!) 

Without further ado, here are 3 language stimulation strategies to get your child talking and a few examples of how to use them! 


Language Stimulation Strategy 1: Choices 

Even if you know exactly what your child wants, offer them choices so they get to practice making requests and using their vocabulary. For example, even if you know your child always wants Goldfish crackers for snack time, offer them a choice between two food items and show them each item as you ask (i.e., “Do you want crackers or carrots?”). Similarly, if they always like to read their favorite book “Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See”  every night before bedtime, and they only read “If You Give a Pig a Pancake” in the morning, still offer them a choice between both books (i.e., “Do you want the bear book or the pig book?”). 

This strategy not only gives your child a chance to hear models of different word labels, but it also gives them the chance to use those words immediately to make a request for something they want. It also gives them the chance to begin using important gestures, like pointing at their choice!  

Tip: Accept any form of choosing when you first introduce this strategy (i.e., gazing, pointing, or reaching for the choice). Model the word to help your child learn it, and with consistency, you’ll find your child using those words, too! 

child practicing words using game

Language Stimulation Strategy 2: Sabotage 

Picture this: You’re out to dinner at a restaurant, and you just ordered the most delicious-looking piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen. The dessert arrives, and you are ready to take a huge bite when, oh no! You realize you haven’t been given any silverware. What are you likely to do next? Probably, your next move is to ask the waiter if they can please bring you a fork. By not being given exactly what you were expecting, you were given the opportunity to communicate for what you needed. We can use this same strategy on purpose (i.e. intentionally “messing up” or making things more difficult, AKA sabotaging!) to help our little ones begin to talk.  

Here are few ways to use this strategy: 

  • “No, not that one!” : Let’s say there are 3 toys sitting on a shelf: a doll, an airplane, and a ball. Your child points up at the shelf, indicating that he or she wants one of those 3 toys. You know your child wants to play with the ball, because he always wants the ball! Let’s “mess it up” on purpose to promote communication. Hand them the doll or airplane instead. When they push it away, you can use this to model gestures (i.e., shaking head “no”), single words (“No no no!”), or short phrases (i.e., “I don’t want the doll!” and “I want the ball!”).  
  • “I can’t reach it!” : Place your child’s go-to favorite toy (Thomas the Train, perhaps?) on a shelf that is out of their reach. They will need your help to get the toy. Use this as an opportunity to model gestures (i.e., pointing to the toy), single words (i.e., “Train!” or “Help!”), and short phrases (i.e., “I want the train!” or “I need help!”) to show your child that they can use their words to get what they want. 
  • “I can’t open it!” : During snack time, give your child snacks they like but that are difficult for them to open or access on their own (i.e., a bag of fruit snacks, a juice box, Goldfish Crackers in a hard-to-open Tupperware, etc.). When they have difficulty, they may pass the snack to you, look at you, and then look back at the snack (this is great communication already!). At that point, you can model single words (i.e. “Help!” or “Open!”,), and short phrases (i.e., “I want more” or “I need help!”) to show your child that they can use their words to get what they want. 

Tip: At times, parents can be so good at anticipating their child’s needs that they never need to ask for anything at all! Help them begin to use their communication skills by purposefully creating these “sabotage” scenarios in which they can communicate their wants and needs. Keep in mind that your child may not use the words themselves the first, second, or even third time you do this, but when consistently hearing these models, they will eventually begin to use the words themselves. 


Language Stimulation Strategy 3: Verbal Routines 

“Row row row your…” What comes next? Without any hesitation, you know that “boat” is the next word to complete that phrase. We can use verbal phrases such as this one to help kids learn language by making language predictable and part of fun, familiar routines. When we pause before saying the last word in the phrase, we give our children a chance to “fill in the blank” and take the lead in continuing the routine. They learn that by using their words, the fun continues!  

Here are a few ways to use this strategy: 

  • Ready, set, go! : On the playground, while pushing your child on the swing, lift them up as high as you can and say “Ready… set… go!” Wait to release the swing until you say “go!” After a few repetitions, pause before saying “go” and let your child attempt to fill in the blank. You can also replace “go!” with action words to match what you’re doing (i.e., “ready, set, swing!” or “ready, set, slide!”) 
  • Up, up, up.. Down! : While building with blocks or Legos, stack them on top of each other and say “up, up, up…” as the tower gets taller. When it falls over on accident or if your child knocks it down on purpose, say “down!”. Over exaggerate your body language and gestures to really drive home the meaning of those early position downs “up” and “down” and entice your child to say them. After a few tries, wait for your child to say the word “down!” as the tower falls.  
  • 1..2..3.. Dance! : While playing with toy animals, take each animal out of a bag and say “1.. 2.. 3.. Dance!” Make the animal do a silly dance before giving the toy to your child. Repeat for each animal and eventually pause to wait for your child to fill in that action word. If dancing’s not your thing, replace that verb with any word and action of your choice! 

Tip: Get creative! Anything can be a verbal routine if you use the same words repetitively in the same situations. That’s why this strategy is so great to teach many words!  

When it comes to growing language skills, all these scenarios prove that we have a lot of options when it comes to arranging our kids’ surroundings to promote communication. Keep these language stimulation strategies in mind, and you’ll hopefully find your child using more and more new words each week! If you need extra help or ideas for implementing these strategies, please reach out to our team of speech-language pathologists here at the Clubhouse.  


Written by Michaela McCabe, M.A., CCC-SLP 

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