When it comes to toys, less is more!

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When a parent asks, “Is there a good toy I can buy to help with Timmy’s language development?” how do you typically answer that question? We already know that symbolic play is pretty important for language development, so we could go with an old TISLP favorite: pick toys that can “be” stuff rather than toys that “do” stuff.

But what other evidence-based suggestions can we give?

This study looked at whether the visual simplicity (or complexity) of a toy changed how parents talked to their toddlers during play. Researchers took visually “busy” ring-stackers and stacking blocks and simplified them by taking out some of the patterns and textures of the toys. Then they recorded the interactions between mothers and infant while playing with each type of toy. From the recordings, three kinds of parent comments were coded:  

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It turned out that moms offered more specific vocabulary to their toddlers (36% of utterances) while playing with the simple versions of the toys. While playing with visually busy toys, Moms only used more specific vocabulary in ~8% of their utterances.  

How did this study come to be? You’ll probably relate to the authors pointing out how, you pick up a kind of ambiguous toy, try to name it, and think, “What is this?!?” There are times when even people with great vocabularies are at a loss for words, and that’s not a great thing to have happen when we’re working with a language-delayed toddler. Sometimes it’s hard to name parts of really busy toys (lots of bright and unique colors, many different parts and pictures, stuff like that). While this study doesn’t tell us that those award-winning educational toys are bad for language development, it does tell us that adults may not refer to these visually busy toys very specifically during play. So if you have a little one on your caseload who would benefit from repetition of more specific vocabulary—help the family pick out some of their more simple toys to use during play!

 

O’Neill, D. K., Deglint, T. J., McKinnon, A. M., Nyhout, A., & Scott, J. (2019). Busy toy designs reduce specificity of mothers’ references to toy parts during toy play with their toddlers. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.

Teaching parents language strategies during shared book reading

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As early intervention SLPs, we know the importance of teaching parents to use language facilitation strategies (see the Heidlage & Roberts meta-analyses we discuss in the last bullet point, here). We also know the value of shared book reading as a context for language learning. These researchers decided to take a close look at the process of teaching parents to use naturalistic language strategies during book reading. To do this, they taught two mothers, one with a three-year-old with ASD and one with a 5-year-old with cerebral palsy, two sets of strategies.

The first set of strategies was engagement strategies for parents to use before, during, and after reading books.

  • Before book reading:

    • Say the title and author (e.g. “This book is called ____ and is written by ____.”)

    • Ask a question to build interest (e.g. “What do you think this book is about?”)

  • During book reading:

    • Make encouraging statements (e.g. “I like how you’re sitting so nicely with me!” “Good job turning the page.”)

    • Use nonverbal and verbal means to focus the child’s attention (e.g. point to a picture and say, “Look! It’s a gorilla!”)

  • After book reading:

    • Ask a closing question to maintain interest, or relate the book to the child’s life (e.g. “Which animal makes a funny sound, a cow or a sheep? Why? What sound does our dog make?”)

The second set of strategies was components of the intervention program Parent-Implemented Communication Strategies (PiCS) (Meadan et al. 2014).

  • Modeling: demonstrate a word, phrase, or gesture with the expectation that the child will imitate (e.g. “Turn the page”)

  • Mand–model: in addition to the model, use a verbal prompt in the form of a question (e.g. “What do you want?”), a choice (e.g. “Should we read the cat book or the tractor book?”), or a command (e.g. “Say ‘turn the page”).

  • Time delay: pause within an established routine to give the child an opportunity to initiate communication (e.g. label all of the pictures on a page except for one, point to the last picture, and look expectantly at the child for five seconds).

They taught parents these strategies via two initial teaching sessions followed by 12 weeks of twice-a-week coaching sessions. The two initial teaching sessions included reviewing the material, watching example videos, role-playing, and feedback. The coaching sessions used the following format:

  • The researcher reviewed the target strategy

  • The researcher provided feedback on the previous session using a video clip, giving direct positive and constructive feedback

  • The mother and child engaged together in shared storybook reading while the researcher observed

  • The mother reflected on her own use of the strategies, and the researcher provided suggestions and feedback. Together, they problem-solved any concerns or issues

The researchers found a connection between the mothers’ use of the PiCS strategies and the child’s communication, providing support for teaching parents to use the PiCS strategies during shared book reading. They also found that the hands-on practice/coaching component was key for the mothers to use the PiCS strategies successfully. Because we EI SLPs are already familiar with the strategies that were taught to the parents in this study, this is definitely something we can use in our sessions!

 

Akamoglu, Y., & Meadan, H. (2019). Parent-implemented communication strategies during storybook reading. Journal of Early Intervention. doi: 10.1177/1053815119855007.

Parent input predicts toddlers’ vocabulary development

This longitudinal study of 50 families and their typically-developing children examined how parent input effects child vocabulary scores one year later. Controlling for factors like the child’s prior vocabulary skill, quantity of input, and SES, they found that:

  • At age 1 ½, quantity of parent input most predicted later vocabulary.

    Note this doesn’t mean other things they didn’t measure couldn’t also impact it, like joint attention or parental responsivity

  • At age 2 ½, diversity of vocabulary in the input most predicted later vocabulary, even when controlling for input.

    Also, other research on children this age has found that vocabulary grows best when directed to the child, not via ambient conversation.

  • At age 3 ½, language complexity matters most

    e.g. decontextualized language like narratives, and explanations (such as answering “Why?” questions fully) 

And for an Early Intervention SLP, this all seems pretty logical. But transforming it into a simplified version for coaching parents could also be quite useful, such as saying:

  • For babies and one-year-olds, talk to your child, and focus on amount.

  • For two-year-olds, talk to your child, and focus on words.

  • For three-year-olds, talk to your child, and focus on sentences and stories.

… and then coaching what this would look like, specifically. Then, of course, the question becomes—would this be adequate, and would it make a difference? We don’t know. The next review (actually, the next two!) show research that digs in deeper to what’s needed for success.

 

Rowe, M.L. (2019). A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity and quality of child-directed speech in vocabulary development. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012 

Throwback (2017): Not just more talk, but Toy Talk

We know that the language input children receive matters. But telling parents to “talk more” might not cut it, especially as you approach the twos and threes! So how can we instead make sure the input supports the child’s grammatical growth?

Consider Toy Talk. It’s a strategy parents are taught to use (in this study, via three parent coaching sessions right before the child’s second birthday), where they’re told to respond to the child’s interests in play, and importantly:

“Talk about the toys” and “Give the object its name” 

Simple, huh? But the effects are substantial. It will basically: force adults’ use of nouns instead of pronouns in the subject position, which pulls the subject and verb away from one another, rather than allowing contractions that may be learned by the child as one unit instead of two morphemes. So it looks like this:

Without toy talk:

It’s soft.

He’s running. 

With toy talk:

The kitten is soft.

The horse is running.

It also makes learning verb tense and agreement easier by forcing marking and helping kids notice these morphemes in the parents’ input:

Without toy talk:

Hop onto the horse.

Drink some water. 

With toy talk:

The cowboy hops onto the horse.

The horse drinks water. 

Toy Talk has been found to be fairly easy for adults to learn and use, and improves the growth trajectories of the children’s unique combinations of subjects and verbs and tense-agreement morphemes.

We don’t yet know how big of an impact strategies like this could make for kids with DLD, but so far it looks promising, and certainly worth trying! Learn more, and grab a parent-friendly handout here.

 

Hadley, P.A., Rispoli, M., Holt, J.K. (2017). Input Subject Diversity Accelerates the Growth of Tense and Agreement: Indirect Benefits From a Parent-Implemented Intervention. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi: 10.1044/2017_JSLHR-L-17-0008

Hadley, P.A., Rispoli, M., Holt, J.K., Papastratakos, T., Hsu, N., Kubalanza, M., McKenna, M.M. (2017). Input Subject Diversity Enhances Early Grammatical Growth: Evidence from a Parent-Implemented Intervention. Language Learning and Development. doi: 10.1080/15475441.2016.1193020.

Let’s hear it for the verbs! Parents’ early verb use predicts children with ASD’s later verb vocabulary

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Verbs are important for early language development; they are the building blocks for early sentences and help kids tell us about the things that are happening around them. But as we know, many of our children with ASD struggle to learn and use them flexibly. We know from the literature that for typically developing children, parents’ verb use can predict their later verb vocabulary. These researchers wanted to know if the same was true for children with ASD.

To do this, they measured the verbs that parents of children with ASD used during “follow-in utterances.” Follow-in utterances are comments that parents make during moments when they and their child are both focused on the same thing. So if a child knocked down a tower of blocks and looked up at his mom, her saying, “The tower crashed!” would be a follow-in utterance. The researchers looked at three aspects of parent verb use during follow-in utterances:

  1. The quantity of verb input, i.e., how often parents said verbs

  2. The diversity of verb input, i.e. how many different verbs parents said

  3. The grammatical informativeness of verb input, i.e. how much rich morphological information surrounded the verb. For example, “We’re jumping” would be more grammatically informative than “jump.” (See the article’s appendix for additional definitions and examples.)

They found that together, these three aspects of parent verb use during follow-in utterances predicted children with ASD’s later verb vocabulary. Because this is a correlational study (and doesn’t tell us what causes what), we’ll need further research to tell us if teaching parents to increase their quantity and quality of verb use will improve their children’s verb vocabulary. That being said, here are some ways authors describe that this line of research may impact what we teach parents:

  • We could teach parents to expand what their child says by adding a verb. For example, if the child says, “baby,” we could teach the parent to respond with, “the baby is sleeping,” rather than adding on to the noun phrase (e.g. “little baby”).

  • We could encourage parents to use diverse verbs during follow-in utterances, rather than over-relying on a small number of verbs and verb forms (such as “I want _____,” or “I need ______”).

  • We could teach parents to use grammatical language, rather than telegraphic. Because including grammatical morphemes seems to support children’s learning of verbs, we could teach parents to model fully grammatical language. For more research about using grammatical vs telegraphic language, see our previous review here.

 

Crandall, M.C., McDaniel, J., Watson, L.R., Yoder, P.J. (2019). The relation between early parent verb input and later expressive verb vocabulary in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi:10.1044/2019_JSLHR-L-18-0081.