Toddlers with expressive language delays understand language but struggle to verbalize it. Although it's normal for toddlers to have a limited vocabulary, kids with expressive language problems may use grunts or gestures more than words. Difficulties communicating can cause both parents and kids a lot of frustration. It can also lead to behavior problems, such as aggression, when toddlers can't effectively say what they want or need.
Although expressive language delays can sometimes signal more serious problems, such as autism, there are other times where toddlers are just late bloomers. About 10 to 15 percent of children show substantial delays in language development at age 2, but only 4 to 5 percent remain delayed after age 3, writes pediatrician and child-language researcher Heidi Feldman in "Pediatrics." If you are concerned about your toddler's speech, talk to your child's pediatrician about whether a referral to a speech therapist is necessary.
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Kids with expressive language delays need to practice using their speech, however, tempting it might be for parents to finish a child's sentences for the sake of time or to reduce his frustration. "One way to elicit more expressive language from children is to present them with many motivating contexts for producing such language," explains Dylan Arena, co-founder of the California-based company Kidadaptive, which creates adaptive content that helps children learn. Motivate your child by offering him choices and giving him an opportunity to verbalize what he wants. Ask, "Do you want apple juice or orange juice?" and wait for him to respond.
Communicating with signs can reduce a child's frustrations when he has trouble verbalizing his wants and needs. There are a few potential drawbacks to sign language, though. "Because signing, like writing, involves motor skills that will not be precise in young children, their attempts to sign will be specific and individual to them," explains Rita Kaffer, a Miami-based speech-language pathologist who specializes in working with children with language delays. Even though the signs may not be true sign language, friends and family can learn to recognize your child's specific signs.
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Playing music and singing songs with your child can help improve his language development. "Not only have I found lyric-based music to be one of the best vehicles for language development, but organizations that have created music classes for children have published empirical data proving cognition and language boosts in children," Kaffer observes. Songs that encourage hand movements, facial expressions and the use of musical instruments can help reinforce the lyrics.
Playing with your child can provide lots of opportunity to model and reinforce language. "Because the foundation of language is communication, we want children to learn in fun and engaging contexts," notes Deanna Swallow, a pediatric speech-language pathologist in Chicago. Play that encourages sound, such as imitating animals or environmental noises, can be helpful. Other forms of pretend play and turn-taking games can also be great ways to encourage language development.
Reading to your child increases his vocabulary. "Children learn language through hearing and imitating," Swallow reports. Read with lots of expression and take time to talk about the pictures. Ask your child to guess what is happening based on the pictures and give him the opportunity to practice naming simple objects in the pictures. Reading nursery rhymes, especially ones that include hand gestures, can help kids develop a better understanding of language.