Mobile Version: Language Prompting

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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.

Scaffolding Language

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 = 1-2 words like "Milk" "More Milk"
  • 27-30 months = 2-2.5 words like "Go out" "Pick me up"
  • 31-34 months = 2.5-3 words like "More please" "Mommy go nigh-nigh."
  • 35-40 months = 3-3.75 words like " More milk please"
  • 40-46+ months = 3.75-4 words like "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.

*Remember, it's super important to help your child develop the language skills that her typical peers have.

So if the peers typically say, "Can I have a drink of water?" it may sound off if your 4-year-old requests with the phrase "Might I trouble you to get me some water?"

Initially this would elicit some chuckles from adults and comments about how clever and precocious this child is... but not from the peers. You don't want your child's peers saying, "Why do you talk funny?" or "What?" So tune in to what language and phrases the peers typically use when you're choosing phrases to prompt.

How to Prompt

Figuring out the how of language prompting is probably why you are here so let's dive in!

When figuring out how to prompt language, you need to know how many words does your child use at a time without any help. Keep your child's MLU in mind so that giving her a realistic challenge and providing appropriate scaffolding.

If your child needs a lot of assistance, you prompt with one word at a time like "I..... want...... milk."

If your child needs a little less help, then you prompt with two words at a time like "I want..... more milk."

If your child just needs a little help, then prompt with the entire phrase "I want more milk."

If your child just needs a little reminder to "use all of her words," then you prompt with only the first word of the phrase. Pair this one word with an expectant look so she knows you are waiting for her to say the whole phrase.

Let's summarize how to prompt

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!

Remember how the goal is to help the child develop language that's similar to that of her peers? Closing the auditory loop gives that example of how her peers are talking and what you are trying to help her do on her own.

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? Peruse 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.

Thanks so much for reading this post! Stick around and explore more ways to enhance your child's language development with this fabulous guest post!


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

Image Courtesy of elijahssong / Pixabay

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