Get from Single Words to Sentences using Core Words (Part I)

Parents often worry about their child’s lack of spontaneous communication.

They call and tell me they are concerned: their child is able to request but they are only using single words(e.g. “cookie” or “iPad”).

I started seeing a child a few weeks ago who was stuck in the “I want” phrase, unable to say anything else. Mom was trying to teach her basic verbs (e.g. “eating, running, drinking,”) but she was adding the “I want” phrase to EVERYTHING so that when she was putting words together and it didn't always make sense.  

For example, I showed her a picture of a child running and asked “What is she doing?”. She replied by saying,  “I want running”. This was a learned behavior: Put “I want” in front of every word.

When children reach a plateau like this, and are unable to put words together into phrases or sentences, this is always when I start thinking CORE WORDS.

So what are core words?

Core words are commonly used words that are useful in a variety of situations. They aren’t just nouns; they can be adjectives, verbs, prepositions … words that are high frequency, highly combinable, and used all the time.

Core words comprise 75 - 80% of the words in our day-to-day speech. 

The other side of the coin is what we call “fringe” words. Fringe words tend to be more specific to a situation, and are usually nouns.

They might be something like “elephant”, or “ice cream”. Great words to learn, but not necessarily useful every day in every scenario.

I have a child on my caseload who LOVES stoplights. Every day he loves to talks to me about stoplights. The word “stoplight” is a fringe word that he can’t get enough of.

The problem is there are so many fringe words and just not enough time to teach them. Unless the fringe word is incredibly meaningful to the child, it’s more efficient to focus on teaching core words simply because they can get a lot more use out of them.

I love to get kids started on core words like “eat” and “go” and “play” because you can use them in so many different situations. If we were at the zoo we might talk about the fringe word “elephant," but if the child knew the core word “go,” then we could use at the zoo, at school, at the playground…. the possibilities are endless. 

Core words simply give you more bang for your buck.

However, fringe words are still a good place to start

For children who are just beginning to communicate I always start with highly motivating fringe words. Fringe words are basic and very concrete. If your child loves to play with trains, helping them say “train” or teaching them to touch a picture of a “train” is very straightforward.

Remember: Choose words that are motivating for your child. For some kids it’s food, for others it’s their favorite toy. Some of my kids are most motivated by sensory games, so I focus on words like “squeeze” or “tickle”.

It’s important for children to understand they must communicate in order to get what they want. That means teaching them to try to say a word, activate a button on their device, or point to a picture on a communication board (download a free copy of mine here).

But fringe words aren’t the whole story

The problem is that most people focus on fringe words – i.e. nouns only - expecting the child to make the intuitive leap to sentences, but often they can’t do it.  Try making a sentence with all fringe words... you won't get very far. 

Some therapists begin teaching sentence building by helping the child to say “I want” or "Give me" in front of a fringe word. At first this seems like a reasonable approach, since they are building a sentence that makes sense in that context.

Unfortunately, this “I want” can become a learned behavior, as I illustrated in the example above where a child uses the “I want” phrase for everything. Our goal is to help children create spontaneous and novel sentences, not to simply memorize a formula. And once children learn this behavior, it can be very difficult to unlearn.

In fact, “I” and “want” are both core words, but it’s important to teach them individually, rather than as a unit, if you want to encourage spontaneity.

How to get started with core words

In my next post (sign up to my mailing list here to make sure you’re first in line to get it!), I’ll share my four best tips for working with core words.

But here’s some advice to get you started: two great core words to try are “eat” and “play”.

These core words are so easy to use in any situation and you can easily pair them with fringe words your child already knows.

Remember: It will likely take your child some time and LOTS of modeling to understand core words, since they are more abstract.

You’ll find that children might get confused at first with core words and say things like “eat ball”. If this happens, don't worry. Simply respond by saying “We don’t eat a ball, we play ball.” 

With lots of exposure to these new words,  children start differentiating between the categories of things we eat versus things we play with and eventually they will start understanding.

Over to you

Does your child struggle with spontaneous communication? Do they seems to be stuck in fringe words? Let me know what you’re finding difficult in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

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Help! My Child isn’t Talking. 6 Strategies to Help Inspire Communication

It’s really normal for parents to worry that their child isn’t talking soon enough, or as well as they should be.

As your child grows,  so does their capacity to communicate.  While every child develops at a different rate, having a few tools at your disposal can really help enhance speech progression.

Here are six strategies I personally use (and recommend!) all day, every day to get kids talking:

1) Encouraging talking by withholding

Sounds strange right? But it works! Withholding is the absolute best tool in my speech therapy tool box to get children talking.

You want a child to communicate? You have to give them a reason by enticing them with something that is highly motivating like their favorite cookie or a brand new toy.

Then--- simply restrict access to it.

If your child is constantly grabbing your iPhone you can hold that iPhone out of reach then give them the words to help them ask for it.

Make sure the item is visible but not accessible without your help. Try using a clear container or tupperware so your child is able to see all the fun going on inside but they need to communicate with you in order to ask for help.

When you start increasing the expectation (i.e. you expect your child to use words instead of whining), then your child will start understanding how they are able to quickly get their needs met by just simply communicating!

2) Sabotage your child

Sound like cruel and unusual punishment? Rest assured... it’s totally safe and a lot of fun if you get it right.

It works by deliberately interfering with a routine activity in order to elicit communication.

So, for example, if you ALWAYS read a story at night you could try holding the book upside down or you could start a familiar book on the wrong page. 

The most important thing is that you pause and wait patiently for a response, and always wait longer than you think you need to.

Another great time to use this technique is when you’re getting dressed. You could do something silly like put your shoes on before your socks or put your pants on your head.

Alternatively, if you child asks for a cookie, give them a crayon! Then wait for the response.

Children LOVE this game and it will always get them talking and giggling.

3) Imitation

Help your child repeat certain sounds so you can get them talking sooner.

I know this seems like a no brainer but we can help children start imitating actions even before they are able to imitate speech and talking. This can be as simple as taking turns clapping or activating a toy that makes noise.

Once children start babbling you can focus on early developing sounds like "b" (as in "ball") or "m" (as in “mommy”) .

One of my favorites is saying the “m” sound during meals. Eat a bite of food and then say “MMMMM” and help your baby say it too.

4) Giving Choices

One of the best pieces of wisdom I received during a clinical rotation in graduate school was this:

Give a child two options; both of which you (the therapist) can live with.

EXAMPLE:

“Do you want to walk by yourself or do you want to hold my hand?”

“Do you want to put the toys away in the bag or in the box?”

Both choices means the child ends up doing what you need them to do, but offering choices means the child has to respond beyond a simple “yes” or “no” answer. 

This gives a sense of autonomy and independence that empowers children to make their own decisions. Children are happier when they are able to decide what they want to eat, where they want to go and what they might like to play with.

5) Open-Ended Questions

Frequently caregivers get stuck asking lots of yes/no questions.

EXAMPLE:

“Are you hungry?”

“Do you want some apples?”

“Are you all done?”

These all start and end with a single word… yes or no.

It’s important to help children expand beyond single words so that they become practiced at formulating their own thoughts into phrases and sentences.  Try pausing your child’s favorite television show and ask thought-provoking questions such as “I wonder what will happen next?” or “How do you think he is feeling?” and then pause to see what your child has to say.

There’s another great strategy that I use with children who are learning how to answer WH questions such as Who/What/When/Where.

If I ask the question:“Where does an elephant live?” and I don’t get a response, I can follow up with two choices in order to give some context and encourage a response.

“Does he live at the zoo or on the farm?”.

It is important to always put the correct answer first. Children tend to repeat the last option that you give so this is a good way to test if they understand what you’re asking, and see whether they are able to answer appropriately.

6) Strategic Pausing

One of the most useful tools to get kids talking is strategic pausing, and it’s something that I struggle with immensely!

Patiently waiting while you pause at strategic points in conversation is a great way to facilitate language development and encourage talking.

For example, if I’m looking at a book with a child I could say: 

“I see….”

and then wait.

Or:

“I wonder….” 

You can use this with repetitive phrases like, “Ready, set….” and your child can say “GO!”. It's also useful during songs, like this: “Old McDonald had a…”. 

Strategic pausing is especially important when asking children questions… we have to give plenty of time to process what we’ve said and then  formulate a response.

The easiest way to remember these strategies is to embed them into something you do every day and your child will start picking up on your routines and filling in the blanks for you. 

Over to you

Does your child struggle with spontaneous communication? Do they seems to be stuck using mostly nouns or the "I want" phrase? Let me know what you’re finding difficult with in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

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Struggling to Communicate with your Child? Try AAC

In the special needs community we LOVE a good acronym, but if you don’t know exactly what each one means they can feel overwhelming and unintelligible.

You might be asked:

Does your child get ABA?

Is it included in your IEP?

Do you have a good SLP?

Argh!

I sympathize; in grad school an entire portion of one of our exams was dedicated to acronyms!

However, I do have a favorite.

AAC.

It stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, and it basically refers to any kind of communication system that helps kids (or anyone, for that matter) express their needs to you if they can’t use verbal speech.

And, what’s more, it’s not all high tech.

One of the biggest misconceptions I see in my practice is that people think that AAC only refers to sleek gadgets activated by fancy buttons.

In fact, some of the most effective AAC supports I use every day are quite simple, and considered “no tech” or “low tech”.

 

NO TECH= NO EQUIPMENT

No tech AAC means that you don’t need any equipment at all!

It amazes me how savvy children can be to get what they want, especially children with limited verbal communication!

They are looking with their eyes, pointing with their fingers and making facial expressions to communicate to us how they are feeling.

Sometimes we get so caught up in technology that we forget the power of teaching a simple head shake for “no” or pointing to something that is desired. Those gestures are universally understood, even by grandma and grandpa.

 

LOW TECH= NO BATTERY

Low tech AAC essentially means there’s no battery.

I love low-tech AAC because it really helps students who are visual learners. Visual aids such as pictures or cues cards can help ease that burden.

One of my favorite tools to use is a communication board.

Click here to get my free communication board to help your child get beyond single words. 

Something else we need to remember is that sometimes high tech AAC fails us. Screens smash, batteries die, iOS updates take way longer than you expected.

TALKING TIP: You always want to have a solid low tech backup so that your child isn’t stuck without the means to communicate with you.

HIGH TECH= REQUIRES A BATTERY

High tech AAC is extremely useful, when used well.

Technology advances have been a serious game-changer in helping children with complex communication needs.

Communicate with the world using just the tap of a button!

And if your child doesn’t have access or mobility to tap a button, rest assured, we can now use eye-gaze technology to track the movements of their eyes. For children who are non-verbal, a high tech speech-generating device affords a child the opportunity to speak when they might otherwise have no means of verbal communication.

With so many apps and systems out there, however, it’s challenging to know which one has the features that are optimal for your child’s specific needs.

My best piece of advice? Focus on core word vocabulary to help support a child’s ability to generate novel language.

Over to you

Have you tried AAC for your nonverbal child with autism? What’s been your experience with AAC? Have you and your child had any success with no, low or high tech? Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.