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Tips on how to avoid using yes/no questions with a `late talker´

Recently, a parent asked me a great question. She asked how to avoid using “yes/no” questions with her late talker. As the daughter now has an expanding vocabulary and is beginning to combine words into 2- to 3-word sentences, this parent wanted to know how to move beyond dichotomous questions, which require only 1-word answers, to questions that would expand her utterance length.

This parent raises a good question because it is natural for caregivers to simplify language for their young children, as is the case of “yes/no” questions. Using strategies to encourage language growth in children takes time and practice. The following are tips for how caregivers can use questions and structure conversations to model and stimulate language development in their children.

Narrate situations –
Narrating situations is a way to model language when a child has limited spoken output, often beginning at 1-2 years of age. It also decreases demands placed on the child by facilitating language without direct questions. Parallel play (i.e., engaging side-by-side with the same toys as the child but not necessarily interacting in play with the child) offers an opportunity to model slightly more sophisticated language forms, such as pronouns (e.g., “I open…”) and provides vocabulary exposure. Such narration supports comprehension of language, without requiring the child to produce language. For example:

Parent: I push the train. The train goes down the hill. Choo-choo. I push the train and Crash! The trains crashed. The train fell off the track. Uh-oh. I will fix the train. Line up trains.

Model language within a question –
Open-ended questions offer children a way to express their preferences. However, if a question is too open-ended (e.g., “How do you feel?”), a child may not understand the question and/or how to respond to the question). For a child whose 2-word utterances are emerging, asking choice-questions is an easy way to ask relatively open-ended questions while placing emphasis on key words or phrases to model appropriate responses. For example:

Parent: What do you want for snack? Do you want to eat an apple or eat a pear?
Child:   Eat pear.

Parent: Who do you want to read you a book tonight?
             Should mommy read or daddy read?
Child:   Daddy read.

Parent: How do you feel? Is Abby happy or is Abby sad?
Child:   Abby sad.

Build-up and breakdown language –
For a child whose 2-word utterances and use of early grammatical morphemes are emerging, “build-ups and breakdowns” are a good strategy that refers to building up complex language and then breaking down the language for the child. Build-ups model complex sentences structures within natural situations.  Breakdowns immediately follow build-ups, by providing short, simple sentences that are easier for the child to comprehend, store in his/her memory, and then imitate. For example:

Parent: Pour the chocolate chips into the bowl. Pour the chips.
Child:   Pour chips.

Parent: Then stir the chocolate into the sticky cookie dough. Stir the dough.        
Child:   Stir dough.

Parent: Now roll a handful of cookie dough into a ball. Roll a ball.
Child:   Roll ball.

Expand your child’s utterances –

For the child who is already combining two words, expanding on a child’s utterance is a method for modeling the child’s own idea using novel vocabulary and/or more complex syntax. It is recommended that a child’s utterance be expanded by only 1-2 words. For example:

Child:     Abby cut.
ParentAbby is cutting.

Child:     Abby cut.
ParentAbby cuts the paper.

Child:     Cup down.
ParentThe cup fell down.


Here are a few sources and recommended readings:

Pepper, J., & Weitzman, E. (2004). It takes two to talk: A practical guide for parents of children with language delays. Ontario, Canada: The Hanen Program.

Weitzman, E., & Greenberg, J. (2002). Learning language and loving it: A guide to promoting Children’s Social, Language, and Literacy Development in Early Childhood Settings. Ontario, Canada: The Hanen Program.