For toddlers that take their time talking, there is no better way for parents to help than by spending a lot of time reading with them. Books introduce new vocabulary to children and can effectively emphasize word meanings. An example of this type of book is I See, by Helen Oxenbury. This board book shows a drawing on the left page, with a caption identifying the object, and then a toddler interacting with the object on the facing page.
Neil Ricklen also has a wonderful line of board books, which label the everyday activities of specific family members and baby. His titles include Daddy and Me, Mommy and Me, and Grandma and Me.
Another great way to involve your toddler with the story, and emphasize new words, is to get him or her to actively participate by acting out the meanings. A good story to choose would be “Jump or Jiggle” by Evelyn Beyer, which is found on page 16 in the book Poems for the Very Young, by Michael Rosen and Bob Graham.
Children can listen to the poem, and then on the second reading, parents demonstrate how each animal moves. Children benefit from the fun of the movement, the enjoyment of listening to the rhyming language, and as a result, they make connections to new words and their meanings.
Another way to approach language development is to offer your toddler a selection of books that all focus on one specific topic or theme. For instance, perhaps you are planning a trip to the zoo next month. Some books you may want to begin exploring before the trip could include all baby animals. Whose Baby am I, by John Butler introduces children to baby animals and asks, “Whose baby am I?” The book gives the answer, with clear illustrations and vocabulary naming the type of animal of both the baby and its parent.
Another book that would fit the theme of baby animals is The Chick and the Duckling, by Mirra Ginsburg. This is a wonderful story about a chick who attempts everything a duckling does and succeeds, until the duckling decides to go for a swim. This book uses the refrain, “Me too” that parents can use to encourage speech by asking toddlers to join in.
With its reliance on the rhythm, rhyme, and the patterns in language, parents of children with a language delay should not overlook poetry. It sets the stage for continued enjoyment of exploring new books and shows children that the tone and feeling of words contribute to its meaning. Through poetic verses, children learn that words connote as well as denote. Poetry also stimulates children to think about the language itself, not just the message that is conveyed. Linguists call this ability to focus on the forms of language as metalinguistic awareness and suggest that it may be critically important in both reading and writing in later stages.
When exploring poetry books, it is important to note that there are differences in purpose and style. As we have seen with picture storybooks, certain poetry books are also useful in encouraging children to repeat fun refrains repeated throughout the story while others allow children to respond physically to the words being read aloud.
Some poetry books center on the sound of language. Several great titles to introduce to your toddler are Chicken Soup with Rice, by Maurice Sendak, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr., John Archambault and Lois Ehlert, and Grandfather’s Lovesong, by Reeve Lindbergh.
Poetry books can also focus on the patterns within language. The Little Engine that Could, by Watty Piper is a classic that has been delighting children for over fifty years. Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag is another great example of use of refrain. Like The Little Engine that Could, who repeats “I think I can,” the little old man and the little old woman in Millions of Cats must contend with
Hundreds of cats
Thousands of cats
Millions and billions and trillions of cats
In order to find the one cat that is their own.
I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, by Mary Ann Hoberman is another great example of patterning of language. As each new event of character is added, all of the earlier ones are repeated. Repetition is a wonderful way to get reluctant talkers to begin trying new words.
Poetry can also focus on the appearance of the language as it is written. Rebus writing is a visual game played with language. It is a combination of words and pictures put together in sentence form. The Secret Birthday Message, by Eric Carle is a rebus book that pairs shapes with words in the form of a secret letter that invites children to match the shapes in order to find the surprise at the end.
Another visual game authors play with language is to print the word in a way that signifies its meaning. In the book So Say the Little Monkeys, by Nancy Van Laan the words curve around and mirror the actions of the monkeys.
Poetry books can also focus on the meanings of words or phrases. A Little Pigeon Toad and A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, by Fred Gwynne are books more suited for second or third graders who can appreciate the idioms and homophones used throughout. However, toddlers would be able to enjoy A Scale Full of Fish and Other Turnabouts, by Naomi Bossom. This book is a collection of language turnabouts with the examples facing each other. For instance, we read “race for a train,” and are shown passengers hurrying alongside a train; opposite it, we see three runners and read, “train for a race.”
While selecting and sharing great literature is wonderful for encouraging reluctant talkers to speak, go the extra step and try a few oral activities with your toddler. Don’t worry if nothing happens at first; the more you both practice the better the results!
- Try to dramatize a story by playing a role from one of your child’s favorite stories. Improvise by creating your own plot or narrate parts of the story and encourage your toddler to act out what comes next. Simple props make play-acting even more exciting.
- Try using masks and puppets. Children who are reluctant to speak are sometimes more verbal if they are allowed to use masks and puppets because it becomes less about them and more about the character.
- Create a felt board and encourage your toddler to retell a story using simple felt cutouts.
Most importantly, have fun. Enjoy the time you and your toddler spend together reading and let the words come when they are ready!