Baby Talk: How to boost your child’s language skills (a programme for 9 to 13mo babies)

Here is something I have been meaning to share for ages. A few months back, now, I read a book called Baby Talk by Dr. Sally Ward. In it she describes a programme she has developed through her clinical work as a speech therapist in the UK. She originally worked with children with delayed language acquisition (among other issues). She got a big wad of funding from the North West Regional Health Authority for some in-depth research on what worked best to improve and accelerate children’s language learning. While the programme was developed for kids with language impairments of different kinds, it turns out that it can be applied to children whose language development is ‘normal’ and in this case it significantly boosts their language and communication skills.

This book is tremendous and I really recommend it. I will say it is written in a very repetitive even, in my view, lazy way with far too much copy-and-paste going on for my liking. But if you ignore how badly it is written (ironically seeing as it is a book about language and communication) the actual programme she is sharing with us is really fantastic.

It is geared to doing three things:

  1. Increase your child’s attention span by building on their ability to concentrate and focus – this is the first step in developing a deep enjoyment of self-directed learning
  2. Improve your child’s listening skills – key to learning in a school setting
  3. Develop your child’s language and communication skills – which correlate highly with ability to use higher reasoning and therefore with IQ

I gleaned a number of insights from reading this book such as understanding that babies really can’t distinguish between foreground sounds (e.g. the sound of a rattle in their hand) and background sounds (such as a plane flying above our house or the TV playing the other side of the room). I got a better picture of what does and what does not help my child pick up language. But it is really this programme she recommends, the practicing of it, which stands to bring real results.

I got the book from the library, just found it there by accident (I tend to go to the library, head for the child development section and just see what is in this week and take whatever grabs my fancy) but I am thinking of buying the book so I have a copy for me as a reference guide. I like her age-by-age language development guide, which does for language milestones what ‘What to Expect When You Are Expecting’ does for embryo development milestones.

So, the programme… Sally (can I get personal with Dr Ward for a moment?!) proposes that we spend half an hour a day, every day, with our child, one-to-one just talking and playing. You may or may not want to do it in this structured way, but let me share the key components of the programme, as they stood out to me, as things anyone can incorporate in their interactions with their kid. You may know many of them already, but there may be one or two that are new and valuable to you.

So, the keys are that during this focussed time you spend with your child it should be:

  • one-to-one with no other people distracting or removing focus. This means making half an hour quality play time for each of your kids.
  • in a completely silent environment, with no background noise so that the child learns to really hear both the sounds you and she/he make but also the sounds her toys and other objects make. Like this they can really learn about cause and effect – eg when I hit this toy it makes that sound. Conversely a child brought up always immersed in background noise (eg TV) can have real difficulties listening and picking out important sounds – which can lead to speech and language delays. So sad…
  • child-led. They call this having ‘shared focus’ but at this age it means that you have really got to focus in on what the baby is paying attention to and give words to what she/he is seeing, doing, tasting, etc. This might be the most important step of all.
  • responsive. Make sure you answer your baby’s vocalisations. That gives her/him instant feedback, a chance to hear it played back but also an understanding of timing and of how conversations work i.e. I talk and you listen, then you talk and I listen, etc.
  • simple. In this half hour, keep your words short and your sentences simple and always grammatically correct. Create a string of short sentences which repeat and emphasise a key word you are trying to impart for example: Here is the ball. It is a blue ball. Mommy is holding the ball.
  • don’t ask ‘testing’ questions. Remembering Sally is a Speech Therapist and mostly deals with problem cases, she has often seen kids whose language skills became inhibited by over-eager parents who incessantly asked questions like ‘what is this called, little Jonny?’, ‘can you say the name for that’. This can really frustrate and puts kids off language all together – especially if they don’t immediately know the answer – plus it is pulling focus to what the parent wants them to look at rather than following the kid’s natural interest, which really is the best way to help them learn.
  • be positive. When your kid starts speaking, always celebrate or acknowledge what they do get right, even if you need to correct it slightly. Say they say ‘kiki’ for kitty. It is great they have a sound for the cat. You can respond with ‘Yes, it is the kitty’ – that immediately tells the child two things a) you like it and understand when they talk; b) the correct word is kitty. Be patient with them :)
  • have fun. If language is fun and kids are getting a kick out of being able to actually communicate and have their needs, wants and likes acknowledged and responded to they will want to communicate more. And you will enjoy it, too. This kind of approach is really about spending quality time with your little one and increasing the closeness and bond between you.

I didn’t think I would do this program when I read the book. I thought ‘I’ll read the book and get some interesting tidbits that I then apply throughout the day when we converse’. After a few chapters, though, I was convinced to give the programme (the full half hour) a go. And, to my surprise, I really liked it. So, I am not doing it, now, because it is ‘good for my daughter’ so much as because it is fun. Sharing focus with Anya I find I really have a new inlet into what she is learning, what is interesting to her now and I genuinely feel closer to her. This may or may not help her language skills. According to the book the boost is considerable and on average children who went through this programme were at least a year ahead of their peers in terms of language skills by the time they got to school and this often translates to higher IQs, too… but of course I don’t know what my daughter’s ‘starting’ IQ is so it is hard to be sure looking at just one child, whether it is working. So, no, I am doing it for me, for us, for fun, first and foremost and whatever fruits may come in the future will be a bonus (insh’Allah).

Here’s an article looking critically at Sally’s work, a few years back:

Though I will say from what I read in the book this is a programme that can be started at any age before  4 years  (not just in the 9 to 13 month window described here – which I think may pertain to her earlier thinking). I reckon at any age it is bound to be useful. At the very least it helps me really notice what is interesting to my child and let that dictate the direction of our play, often.

8 thoughts on “Baby Talk: How to boost your child’s language skills (a programme for 9 to 13mo babies)

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