Pamela A. Hadley, Ph.D.
University of Illinois

Combining words to make sentences is an important milestone as children learn to talk. Early sentences have I-subjects and are often about what the child wants or has. Later sentences are about other people or objects. These “other-focused” sentences appear first with pronoun subjects like it, that, or he and then with noun subjects like ball, baby, and tower. Most toddlers can combine different subjects and verbs to create diverse sentences by 2½ years of age [1]. However, toddlers at-risk for developmental language disorder (DLD) may still have difficulty creating diverse sentences at age 3. We developed ‘toy talk’ to help toddlers learn to combine the words they know into more diverse simple sentences.

What is Toy Talk?

Toy talk is a new language modeling strategy that you can use in conversations with your toddler. More familiar language modeling strategies include responsive labeling, self-talk, and parallel talk. These strategies help children connect words they hear with objects and events in the world. Parents and teachers are encouraged to model vocabulary and basic sentence structure using these strategies [2-7].

  • responsive labeling: adult labels the object a child holds up; That’s a monkey.
  • self-talk: adult talks about her own actions; I’m rocking my baby.
  • parallel talk: adult talks about the child’s action; You’re feeding your baby.

Toy talk [8-9] is a simple adaptation of these familiar strategies. Toy talk shifts the conversation toward descriptive comments about the toys and objects themselves. Like self-talk and parallel talk, toy talk matches the content of your sentences to children’s interests and activities. However, unlike labeling, self-talk, and parallel talk, toy talk was designed to promote nouns as sentence subjects.

  • toy talk (adult talks about an object’s location, property or action;
    The cow is in the barn; The bottle is empty; The tower fell down).

These language modeling strategies are used with responsive interaction strategies, such as following your child’s lead, noticing your child’s interests, and interpreting and expanding your child’s communication attempts. When using toy talk, we also encourage you to capitalize on “comment-worthy moments.” During a comment-worthy moment, your child has heightened interest in something surprising or interesting that has just happened like a spoon falling off the table or a squirrel climbing up a tree. Your child’s eagerness to share this moment with you creates the perfect opportunity to say something about the object and respond to your child’s turn with a toy talk sentence.

How do parents learn to use toy talk?

In our first study teaching toy talk to parents [10-11], we introduced parents to responsive interaction and toy talk strategies in a parent education session and two individualized coaching sessions when their toddlers were between 21- and 24-months-old. The toddlers in this study had average language abilities. They all had at least 25 words, but they had only a few different sentences. We taught parents two simple strategies.

Strategy 1 is talk about the toys — the locations, properties, and actions of the toy or object that has captured the child’s interest. This strategy increases the number of sentences about concrete objects in the play environment.

Strategy 2 is give the object its name. This strategy replaces pronoun subjects with noun subjects.

When the two strategies are combined, a parallel talk sentence like you’re building a tower is turned into a toy talk sentence like the tower is getting big. Other examples of toy talk sentences include:

  • The baby is hungry. — as the child is feeding a doll and says “baby”
  • The cow goes in. — as the child puts a cow in a farm puzzle and says “go in”
  • The noodle is coming out. — as the child pushes a Play-Doh press down and says “noodle out”
  • The tower fell down. — after the child knocks a block tower down and says “fall down”

Short, simple comments with noun subjects are rare in parent-toddler conversations. They make up less than 3% of parent utterances. It is more common for parents to ask questions (e.g., Do you wannaAre you gonna…), give directions (e.g., put it in here; turn it like this), manage behavior (e.g., don’t put that in your mouth), or use language for social engagement (e.g., Here you go! You did it!) Notice these sentences are mostly about “you” – the child’s future or completed actions. Brief instruction in toy talk can shift this balance, reducing parent sentences with you subjects and increasing sentences with noun subjects.

Will toy talk promote your child’s language development?

We have found that toy talk sentences promote language development for children with average language abilities [10-11]. Specifically, the number of different noun subjects in parents’ toy talk sentences predicted their children’s rate of growth in sentence diversity and other grammatical structures between 21 and 30 months. This raises an important question: What makes toy talk sentences special?

We think toy talk sentences help toddlers learn language more easily for several reasons:

  • As toddlers hear toy talk sentences with noun subjects (e.g., The pig is hungry; Your tower fell down), their knowledge of sentence structure gets stronger over time.
  • Toy talk sentences about non-living subjects (e.g., The tower fell down. The noodle is coming out.) may be especially helpful. These subjects contrast with the I-sentences toddlers say first (e.g., I want that. I did it!). When toddlers are exposed to sentences with diverse noun subjects, they may learn the rules for forming sentences more quickly [1].
  • As parents use more noun subjects, other parts of sentences may change naturally [11]. That is, when you say a sentence with a noun subject, you are also more likely to say is/are as complete words instead of shortening them (e.g., The kitty is sleeping. The dishes are dirty. instead of She’s sleeping. They’re dirty.) The combination of noun subjects and full is/are words make it easier for toddlers to learn and then use these words in their own speech.

Does toy talk promote language development in children at-risk for DLD?

Of course, the crucial question for parents and clinicians is: Will toy talk promote language development for children at-risk for DLD? We are currently exploring this question as part of a parent-implemented intervention study12. Although we do not have this answer yet, toy talk is based on well-known clinical strategies. If your child is combining words, they may benefit from hearing more toy talk sentences. Talk to your child’s speech-language pathologist to find out if your child is ready and to help you incorporate toy talk into daily routines, play, and conversations.


References

  1. Hadley, P., McKenna, M., & Rispoli, M. (2018). Sentence diversity in early language development: Recommendations for target selection and progress monitoring. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 27, 553–565.
  2. Bunce, B. (1995). Building a language-focused curriculum for the preschool classroom, Volume II: A planning guide. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Inc.
  3. Girolametto, L., Pearce, P., & Weitzman, E. (1996). Interactive focused stimulation for toddlers with expressive vocabulary delays. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 39, 1274–1283.
  4. Justice, L., Mashburn, A., Pence, K., & Wiggins, A. (2008). Experimental evaluation of a preschool language curriculum: Influence on children’s expressive language skills. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51, 983–1001.
  5. Levickis, P., Reilly, S., Girolametto, L., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Wake, M. (2014). Maternal Behaviors Promoting Language Acquisition in Slow-to-Talk Toddlers: Prospective Community-Based Study. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 35(4), 274–281.
  6. Robertson, S., & Ellis Weismer, S. (1999). Effects of treatment on linguistic and social skills in toddlers with delayed language development. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 42, 1234–1248.
  7. Weitzman, E., Girolametto, L. & Drake, L. (2014). Hanen Programs for Parents: Parent-implemented early language intervention. In R. McCauley, M. Fey, R. Gillam (Eds.), Treatment of language disorders in children (2nd Edition, pp. 27-56). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  8. Hadley, P., & Walsh, K. (2014). Toy talk: Simple strategies to create richer grammatical input. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45, 159–172
  9. Hadley, P.A., & Rispoli, M. (2015). Toy talk strategies: An instructional resource. Retrieved from https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/
  10. Hadley, P., Rispoli, M., Holt, J., Papastratakos, T., Hsu, N., Kubalanza, M., & McKenna, M. (2017a). Input subject diversity enhances early grammatical growth: Evidence from a parent-implemented intervention. Language Learning and Development, 13, 54–79.
  11. Hadley, P., Rispoli, M., & Holt, J. (2017b). Input subject diversity accelerates the growth of tense and agreement: Indirect benefits of a parent-implemented intervention. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60, 2619–2635.
  12. Kaiser, A., Roberts, M, & Hadley, P. (Multiple PIs, 2018). Maximizing outcomes for preschoolers with developmental language disorder: Testing the effects of a sequentially targeted naturalistic intervention. National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, U01 DC017135.