Around 12-15 months of age your child will begin to imitate words he/she hears you say. These imitations may not sound exactly like the real word, but your child should be using the same word approximations for the same words often enough that parents can eventually tell what their child is saying. For example, "ba" for "ball". Once your child is imitating words consistently, they should begin using words spontaneously without a model from someone and should be using these words to request items.
Children with an expressive language delay may be able to imitate or even label items within their environment, but lack the skills needed to use language functionally. For example, when your child sees a ball they may say "ball", but if they are looking for their ball they may not yet have the ability to realize if I say "ball" my mom will give me a ball.
Here are a few ideas on how to teach your child this skill:
Model the word(s) you want your child to be using. For example, if your child wants a train, you would say "choo-choo" before handing them the train.
Set the environment up for these scenarios. Place your child's favorite snack out of reach so he/she has to ask you for it.
Act purposely forgetful. When your child is getting dressed forget to put his shirt on and then model the word "shirt". Or give your child his cup with no liquid in it and model the word "milk please".
Give your child a toy you know he can't operate on his own and model the word "help me" when he hands you the toy.
You don't want your child to become upset during these activities, no child is able to learn during the middle of a meltdown. A general rule of thumb is to prompt your child to say a word 3x, if they don't say the word (or an approximation of the word) give them the item they want while still modeling what they should be saying. Being playful in these situations helps lessens the pressure on your child and turns these activities into fun games.
Before expecting your child to use a word to request, your child must already be able to say the word. Usually a child needs practice imitating a word many times before they will begin to use the word on their own.
If your child does not appear to be understanding the concept of using language to control their environment an evaluation with a speech pathologist is recommended. A child who is not using words to request may have underlying deficits that need to be addressed before the above listed strategies will be effective.
Katie is the owner of Katie Carney Speech Therapy, LLC, where she provides in-home play based and family centered speech and feeding therapy on the south side of Chicago. Katie has a passion for oral motor, feeding and speech development. To contact Katie visit her website at katiecarneyspeech.com, call her at 773-914-2194, or email her at email@example.com.