A common goal in speech therapy is to increase MLU or help kids talk in longer phrases. MLU stands for “Mean Length of Utterance” and is the average number of words used each time a child talks. If the child usually talks in two words at a time like “More milk” and “Go up” then the child has an MLU of 2.
There’s a fair amount of detail when calculating MLU, but for today we’re going to stick with a super simplified, DIY version.
So if your child is only using two word phrases, how do help them get to five word phrases? Before you focus on combining five words, you need to move to three words, then four words, etc. You get there with one new word at a time by prompting your child how to use specific phrases and using “scaffolding.”
“Scaffolding” is an idea that comes from Vygotsky’s theory Zone of Proximal Development. I’ll spare you the details but just keep in mind that we’re focusing not on what your child can do independently but what your child can achieve some help.
This area of what your child can achieve with some help is what we’ll work on by scaffolding or prompting your child’s language skills.
How Do I Know What Language to Prompt?
This is the big question!
When you’re going to scaffold or prompt your child’s language, you need to first know what your child can do independently vs. with some help. MLU develops in stages so look below to find what ages to expect an average MLU. There’s a bit of leeway with this timeline, so if your 12 month old isn’t combing two words yet, don’t panic.
|12-26 months||1.0-2.0||“Milk” “More Milk”|
|27-30 months||2.0-2.5||“Go out”
“Pick me up”
|35-40 months||3.0-3.75||“More milk, please”|
“I want more milk”
The next part is recognizing how many words your child is using independently. Take a second and look over the chart to know where your child fits before jumping to the next portion.
Now that you know what your child can do independently, pick out the next stage of MLU on the chart to focus on as you prompt your child to use longer phrase. So if your child is using phrases like “Want milk,” that means their MLU is around 2 so your goal is start move to 3 word phrases.
How to Prompt
How Much Help?
|What Do You Do?||
|Say one word at a time||“I”…. “want”…. “milk”|
|Say a few words at a time||“I want”….. “more milk”|
|Say the whole phrase||“I want milk”|
|Say the first word of the phrase||“I”|
When your child is first combining words, then you’ll give them more help by saying one word at a time. As your child gets better at combining the words independently, you’ll start backing off on how much help you give. For example, instead of saying a few words at a time, you’ll move to saying the whole phrase and then to just giving a little reminder by saying the first word of the phrase.
The goal is to give minimal prompting or the least amount of help needed.
An example of prompting where you’re saying one word at a time:
You: “I” child repeats “I”
You: “want” child repeats “want”
You: “milk” child repeats “milk”
You: “I want milk” then give the child milk
Close the Auditory Loop
After you’ve finished helping your child say the whole phrase, repeat the complete phrase back just like you would normally say it. You’re setting the example of how to really say the phrase. This is a big part of prompting language so don’t forget to close the auditory loop!
How to Decrease Prompting
When your child has mastered one stage, move on to the next step. You may start with ‘feeding’ individual words to your child, but the goal is for your child to communicate independently with the MLU typical for their age. Continue to challenge your child and if your child is having a lot of difficulty and is frustrated then go back a step and provide more support with the language prompting.
Sometimes it can be hard to plan out your language prompts and know how your child will respond.
To ensure you elicit the language target you want (whether it’s a sentence type, word, etc), you have to plan how you’ll respond to the child’s spontaneous utterance.
Want to see some activities you can use to increase MLU and practice your language prompting? Read this post.
Now, please, please, please don’t take these steps and apply them by only talking to your child is one and two word phrases.
These steps are for when you are prompt your child’s language. You need to continue creating a language-rich environment by using narration, auditory bombardment, and sentence expansion techniques. With that caveat out of the way, you now have a new strategy to add to your bag of language development tricks.
Need a few more language development strategies or curious why MLU is so important for children with cochlear implants? Click here.
Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. London: George Allen & Unwin.
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