Expanding Sentences

When will my child start speaking in sentences? His sentences lack correct grammar, What should we do?

Today, we delve into the idea of expanding sentences or how to make their sentences longer and meaningful. Children naturally progress from using first words (between 12-18 months) to phrases like ‘Daddy go/ Mommy sit’ (between 18-24 months) to finally sentences. Eventually, they will be able to have a simple to and fro conversation.

Based on my experience, the transition from words (mama/baba) to phrases (mama come/baba go) has an excellent window of opportunity to mold and improve your child’s language. In my case, I turned every one of my family members into speech therapists. It had its downside as well. It took a third eye for me to realize, that I was constantly testing my daughter.

Have you ever noticed adults playing with children? The only thing they do is ask questions. What is this? Why does that happen? The better the answer, the child is deemed clever. It’s a crowning glory moment for the child, to be acknowledged for their efforts and our approval. I have done this and been that person. I still do it, but I catch myself doing it and change course.

Well, how would you feel if you met someone, who constantly asked you questions. I would have a period of awkward silence and then beeeeeeep. You’ve lost me.

So, catch yourself when you test your child. You need to nourish them with a good language environment. You will be surprised at the words and sentences they use after listening to you. Rather than being the adult who asks questions, be their companion who talks and enjoys the experience with them. It’s not easy, because our parent brain, would want to test now and then, to see how smart our child is.

I am a believer and proponent of child centered approaches to teach language. Child centered means, the child is in the driver’s seat. He/she directs the activity, but we consciously choose their favorite things. It’s something I’ve highlighted time and again, follow your child’s lead.

So let’s jump in. I am directly leading you to the methods and examples, that I used with my daughter.

It is called the Indirect Language Stimulation (ILS; Fey, 1986) approach.

  • Self-talk and parallel talk– In self-talk we describe our own actions as we engage in an activity. I copy my child playing with blocks, saying as I do “I’m building. I’m building blocks. See my blocks? I’m building” It provides a clear and simple match between my action and words. Parallel talk is like we provide self-talk for the child. Almost like a running commentary. We say “You’re building a tower. You’re building a tall one”. You can get creative with this.
  • Imitations– Usually, imitation is about the child doing or saying what you do. Let’s turn the tables now. How about we do what the child does. What this does is, gets your child’s attention, they think you are one of them and eventually do things like you do. Research suggests that children who imitate show advances in language development (Carpenter, Tomasello, & Striano, 2005)
  • Expansions– In expansion, we take the child’s utterance and add some grammar to it and present it in a way, that provides a good model for them to learn. It’s like the finishing touches of the final dish. For e.g. If the child says “doggy house” , then we say “The doggy is in the house” It is our attempt to get the child to imitate at least part of the sentence. Any talk is good talk.
  • Extensions- If expansion was about making more sense of the utterance. Extension is about adding extra information. In the ‘doggy house’ example you can add saying “He is cold. He went inside”.
  • Buildups and breakdowns- Haven’t you heard your toddler repeating the same sentence a couple of times in different ways. For e.g. “I go outside. Outside. It is outside”. I’ve heard it a million times. Research (Cross, 1978) says that these types of responses are associated with language growth in children. So, you can do the build ups and breakdowns for them. Let’s take the ‘doggy house’ example again. Firstly, you expand their sentence saying “Yes, the doggy is in the house. The house. He is in the house. In the house, The doggy is in the house. The doggie’s in the house. The doggy. ” People might think, you have a tape that is stuck playing, but who cares. Your goal is language nourishment.
  • Recast sentences– This is similar to expansion. In expansion, we expand the child’s remark into a sentence. However, in recast we make it into a different type of sentence. If the child makes a statement, ‘doggy house’ , then we recast it into a question “Is the doggy inside the house?” or a negative sentence for the sake of playfulness like “The doggy is not in the house!”

The idea behind all these techniques is to do it in a simple and accessible way for the child to learn. We are tempting the child to talk, by using the activities, toys and topics they love. These are great ways to accelerate their language development. If you notice, none of this about what children should do. It’s about how we as adults should be equal partners in communication, by enriching their surroundings with words and language.

Because words matter….


  • Language disorders in children and adolescents, Dr. Rhea Paul

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