Children born with Down Syndrome often progress through the same milestones of language development as their peers, just at a delayed pace. Comprehension often precedes expression, but that doesn’t mean that as a caregiver, you cannot encourage this expressive language development early on at home.
Here are some ways to incorporate language-learning activities into your everyday routine to encourage the development of your child’s skills.
Context is Everything
Your child is most likely to learn the words for the objects she uses most (shoes, juice, spoon), etc. This means two things: one, make sure you engage with your child consistently and say the words for the objects you want him to learn. Two, if there are words that are difficult to learn, make sure you create situations to enable your child to learn them.
For instance, the words “up” and “down” are abstract concepts, so you may have to create scenarios where you demonstrate up and down…maybe by tossing a ball into the air and saying “up” when it’s going up and saying “down,” when it’s going down. Then, do this with other objects, so your child understands that “up” and “down” can apply to any object, not just a ball.
Mommy, I Want That!
Teaching signs and symbols to your child and the meaning these carry can help him communicate as his language skills emerge. Toddlers who know what they want, but can’t communicate or articulate it become frustrated, whether they have Down Syndrome or not. You can create a communication system with your child, first by showing toddlers a real object or activity that has a matching image to go along with it.
You can use cards with pictures already on them or you can take pictures of objects in your home or activities your child likes. Once your child understands that a picture represents a real item, have your child “ask” for what he wants by pointing to the associated picture. Once he points to the picture, also encourage him to try to say the word (or an approximation of the word), too.
Colors are Fun!
There are many interactive games to make learning colors fun at home! Go on a treasure hunt: collect various items of a single color from around the house – whether it be a blue towel, book, toy, pillow, cup — and put them all in a common blue bag or box. Use this to teach your child what the color blue means. Repeat this with other colors.
This general concept of learning colors is often difficult because it is abstract, not concrete like naming a single, specific vocabulary item. A visual game that is tied to real-world objects can help a child with Down syndrome begin to make connections among items that are relevant to them.
Seeing all these items together, in contrast with other groups of colored items, can begin to give this general concept meaning. While your initial focus is to sort or identify the colors, eventually ask your child to name the colors or work on even more vocabulary by asking her to name the object, too.
Say Some More!
As is expected for delayed language milestones, children with Down syndrome need more time before they will be able to form multi-word phrases. We can encourage them even if we aren’t hearing these phrases yet! If your child is in the phase where he can say single words, try to bring him to the next level.
You can use the Imitation and Expansion Technique. When your child says a word, repeat the word back to him. Then, expand upon the word by adding another word that makes sense in context.
For example, if your child says “tub” (for bathtub), say “tub” back to him and follow it with “go.” When you say “tub go,” your child will understand that he’s going into the tub. If your child says, “phone,” you say “talk phone,” and show him that you’re going to talk on the phone.
Keep repeating these simple expansions until your child learns. It may take a while, but the best thing you can keep doing is modeling new, simple language that includes a variety of word types (i.e. objects, actions, locations, hi/bye, colors or other descriptors, etc.).
A visual pacing board can be helpful for learning two-word phrases. This visual serves as a reminder to combine words together. Take a rectangular piece of cardboard and put two colored dots on it a few inches apart.
The board will serve as a guide for your child to follow along with the words she says. Each dot represents a word. Two dots will remind her that she has to say 2 words, and she can tap her hand on the dots as she attempts these words.
For example, if you were to model the phrase, “tub go,” for instance, first point to the initial dot and say, “tub.” Then, point to the second dot and say, “go.” Let your child do the same and tap on each dot while saying the corresponding word. As your child progresses with her language learning, draw more dots to provide cues for her to add more words. Eventually, your child will be saying things like, “I want more food please!”
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Repetition may get old for you, but for your child, it’s essential! Working with your child outside of therapy can make an incredible difference in her development. This effort has to happen every day. Practicing sporadically a few times a month will not help to expedite gains. Try to work these exercises into your child’s every day life and make it fun and upbeat.
While you’re at the grocery store, while bathing your child, during dinner, etc., say words, point to objects, have your child say words, and continue talking and teaching.
Make It A Habit!
Once this daily interactive teaching becomes second nature, it won’t seem as hard and you may find yourself incorporating these strategies and suggestions without knowing it! Our goal is to create opportunities to expose and model new language! Happy Learning!
AASL therapists, with excerpts from Libby Kumin, PhD, CCC-SLP, Professor of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, Loyola University, Maryland