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Communicating with a Toddler

by Teresa Pitman
Carol-Ann Betz is starting her evening routine with her two-year-old daughter, Averyl Shifflett. "Now we're going to read a book, and then we'll brush your teeth and then we'll go to bed," she says. The story over, Betz continues: "OK, time to go upstairs and brush our teeth and off to bed."
Does Averyl understand all that? Betz says that while she may not grasp every word, she thinks Averyl has a sense of what she's talking about. And the running commentary helps prepare her for what will happen next.
That mother-toddler conversation does even more, according to Christopher Moore, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. It's important, he says, that parents expect their toddlers to understand more than they do. "If we talk to them with language that is a little more advanced, the toddlers are stretched in their skills. They want to communicate with us, so they make the effort to figure out what we are saying and to make their needs known. Mothers are usually very good at knowing just how much more advanced they can be," he explains.
While one-year-olds can usually say only a few words, they understand a lot more. We don't need to talk to them in one- or two-word sentences just because they do. "Toddlers also get meaning from the context, your gestures, your tone of voice," Moore adds.
If you're looking to boost your toddler's language skills - and communicate more effectively - Moore offers these tips:
Talk about things that interest her. "When parents follow their children's interests, they acquire language skills more quickly," says Moore. We all know of two-year-olds who can have in-depth discussions about dinosaurs, construction vehicles or other things that fascinate them. That vocabulary develops when parents join their child in conversation about backhoes or brachiosauruses.
Take her talk further. "If you are looking at a picture book together, and she says, 'Doggie,' you can respond with 'Yes, that's a brown dog,'" Moore explains. "So your child has given you a topic and you've extended it, added to it. That's how language becomes more complex."
Repeat - but not exactly. For example, you might continue reading that picture book and pointing to items on the page as you say, "That's a cat. That's a fish. That's a sheep." The words "that's a" form what Moore calls a linguistic frame, and this repetition gives your toddler an early insight into the rules of grammar.
Reframe sentences. If your toddler can put together two-word sentences and says, "Doggie run," you could respond with a question: "Why is the dog running?" This shows your child new ways to talk about what he observes.
Make requests positive. "Simple sentences are easier for toddlers to understand," Moore points out. "Say, 'Walk on the path,' rather than 'Don't go on the grass.' The 'don't' construction is a more complicated sentence and harder for a toddler to figure out."
Stay current. When parents talk to toddlers, it's often to get them to do something. Achieving that isn't just about ensuring your child has the vocabulary to understand. "Toddler thinking tends to be concrete and based in the here and now," Moore explains. So offering them future enticements to get them to do something now is not going to be effective. "The immediate motivation is stronger - you have to make it worth their while right now to do what you are asking."
While the toddler years are a time when language skills explode, figuring out complicated sentence structure and the rules of grammar is still beyond most toddlers' capacity. "Keep your sentences short, concrete and positive if possible," recommends Moore.
Of course, that's no guarantee that your toddler will do the same for you. "Sometimes Averyl is talking away and I just can't figure out her pronunciation," Betz says. "She'll say it five times and I end up pretending I understand her - 'Oh, yes, Averyl, that's right; now let's go in the kitchen and get a snack.'"
It makes you wonder if sometimes our toddlers are doing the same thing when we talk - nodding and smiling and then moving right on with what they wanted to do in the first place.
Toddler Sign Language
Is there any way to ease the frustrations - and tears - that sometimes plague toddlers whose understanding of language outpaces their ability to use it? Carol-Ann Betz used sign language with her daughter, Averyl, when she was an infant, and found that her child signed to her frequently between the ages of 12 and 18 months. "She could sign to me when she needed a diaper change, when she was hungry, when she was all done eating, when she wanted up or down - all the basic toddler needs," Betz explains. "I think it helped us through those months when her ability to speak wasn't quite there. By 18 months, though, Averyl's vocabulary began to expand and soon saying words became easier than signing them. Now, Betz says Averyl talks all the time.