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More Words or Spontaneous Language? Where Should We Focus

As a speech-language pathologist, we love words. Long words, short words, rhyming words, minimal contrasting words, grammatically correct words... bring on all the words! Many times, we find ourselves in awe of the long sentences our children string together and we may even give ourselves a little pat on the back. Listen to at all the words Johnny said!

The first sentences we teach start with "I want ____" and then we might add "please" at the end. Wow, we suddenly have a 4 word sentence! Our child is using a full sentence! But then we start to listen closer and we notice our child is repeating just these 4 words, maybe switching the third word out. So we try another carrier phrase to teach another sentence. We start teaching "S/He is ____+ing" for present progressive verbs tenses. We use beautiful charts with words and pictures to provide visual prompts for each word.

Are we getting lost in the language?

Of course, having our children communicate in full sentences is a wonderful thought. Should this be an actual goal during speech therapy? Think about how many times you use a full, 3 or 4+ word sentence during your day. Or do you communicate in the quickest, most efficient utterance possible?

Granted, for our children who are working on grammatical tenses, using complete sentences is essential. But for our children who are learning to communicate, it's important to keep our priorities straight. During the course of your day, you most likely use a combination of full sentences and abbreviated phrases to get your point across. Why should you expect your child to communicate differently?

Rather than focusing on the words, we should be focusing on the ways our children are using these words. Encourage flexible use of language, rather than memorized sentences that only work in structured contexts. Our children can pick up the differences between want/need, protesting, commenting along with past/present/future, adjectives, action words, etc. if rather than teach these concepts, we model them.

For example, we could teach present progressive +ing using our visual sentence prompt. Great! But do our children truly understand this concept when labeling a picture using this sentence? A better way is to get them in action. "We will swing!" as you run to the swings... "Swinging, Swinging, we are swinging!" as you swing back and forth. Then as you get down, "We swung!" Now we've experienced "swing" not only in every grammatical tense, but as a full sensory experience.

Another example, let's think about intonation... many of our children with autism struggle with intonation, which conveys so much meaning and color to our words. With a single word, our children can label, request, direct an action or attention. "Cup." (to label) versus "Cup?" (to request) versus "CUP!" (to direct your attention to a spilled cup). Modeling these slight differences will give your child an edge to better social communication, even if it's at a single word level.

As a parent, educator or SLP, we prefer the drill practice because we see the results quickly. It takes hundreds of repetitions to learn a word in drill, but we can get that done quickly! It takes less than 50 to learn the same words in action/play, however that's still many, many trips to the swings.

Take a step back and try to figure out your priorities. Do you want your child to have a large vocabulary with full sentences that may sound rigid, but are generally correct? Or do you want your child to be able to interchange these words, not always correctly, but able to get their needs met and their feelings expressed? Do we want to tell a movie script or write a new novel?

Let me know your tricks for helping your child communicate! What works best for you? What doesn't work? What are some of your favorite language games?

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