How to Expand Your Child’s Language in Everyday Conversations

3.3% of children in the US have a language delay and these delays show up the most in children 3-6 years old. So whether your child is 20-months or 3-years-old, you want to be proactively developing your child’s language during these crucial brain development years.

So if your child has difficulty communicating, you do want to help them continue to develop language but you don’t want to put unrealistic expectations on them.

The strategy you’re about to become an expert on is expanding what your child says. With this strategy, you’re not putting expectations on your child or trying to get them to say something specific. This is a strategy that’s easy to use in everyday conversations because it’s just something you say, there’s nothing else required.

Now when it comes to encouraging your child to talk, it can really seem like a never ending conundrum: where is that point between an opportunity for growth and pushing too much and setting an unrealistic expectation? This sweet spot is called the Zone of Proximal Development.

Zone of Proximal Development is the area between what your child can do independently and what they can do with a little help. This Zone of Proximal Development is how we’re going to develop your child’s language skills.

Zone of Proximal Development is the area between what your child can do independently and what they can do with a little help. Click To Tweet

To improve your child’s language first you need to know what your child can say without any help. Then we’ll jump into how to expand your child’s sentences and use principles from the Zone of Proximal Development to naturally and subtly take your child’s language to the next level.

How is Your Child Communicating Independently?

What can your child say by herself/himself? Is it a one, two, or three word sentence? Or is your child currently communicating by pointing to things they need or want? Watch and listen to your child so you have a good feel for how your child communicates.

Now look below and find which stage of communication matches best what your child can do independently. You don’t have to necessarily go by your child’s age, instead focus on the specific language skills that your child demonstrates.

Stages of Communicative Behaviors



Birth-3 Months Different cries for different needs
4-6 Months Babbling and laughing
7-12 Months Recognizes words for common objects & vocalizes to get attention

Stages of Spoken Communication

Age MLU Example
12-26 months 1.0-2.0 “Milk” “More Milk”
27-30 months 2.0-2.5 “Go out”

“Pick me up”

31-34 months 2.5-3.0
35-40 months 3.0-3.75 “More milk, please”
41-46+ months 3.75-4.0 “I want more milk”

Easiest Strategy to Develop Language

Ready for the next step? Now that you’ve identified your child’s stage of communication, we’re going to focus on teaching your child the next stage. So if your child is using two word phrases, we’re going to teach them three word phrases.

The #1 strategy you’ll use is Expansion & Extension, aka rephrasing. It sounds complex, but I guarantee that you have used it before without even knowing it.

All you do is repeat back what your child says but in a way that shows them how to make it more complex (at the next language level).

Rephrase and extend your child’s phrase two times. The first time, repeat it back with correct grammar and add on a word. The second time, repeat it back in a longer phrase.

Example #1

Your Child: “More milk”

Your Reply: “More milk, please. Let’s get you some more milk.”

Example #2

Your Child: “Go outside.”

Your Reply: ” Wanna go outside? Okay, let’s open the door and go outside.”

Additional Strategies to Develop Your Child’s Language

While modeling longer phrases, you can use Acoustic Highlighting to make it easier for your child to listen and dissect the sentences. This listening and spoken language strategy is awesome for your child’s hearing/listening development.

Some other simple strategies you can use to improve your child’s language are NarrationAuditory Sandwich, and singing along to music.

Using a combination of these strategies keeps developing language fun and engaging, but it can be overwhelming to try to learn and intentionally implement all of these strategies so start first with rephrasing and extending.

Realistically, it can be hard to be constantly rephrasing and expanding. I get it. After a long day doing speech & language therapy at the preschool, my voice is shot. But make the effort. Try to use this strategy consistently. It becomes second nature and while initially it feels kinda awkward, soon it’s be a natural part of your interactions.

Now even when I’m not at work, I unintentionally use this strategy when I interact with toddlers and preschoolers. It’s like I can’t turn it off. 🙂


Have you intentionally (or unintentionally) used this strategy to teach your child to talk?



Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. London: George Allen & Unwin.

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