Language Delays Part 1 – The Stages of Communication

Recently I have been reading the book “Play to Talk” by  James MacDonald Ph.D. & Pam Stoika Ph.D. about working with children with language delays. It is so good and a great compliment to what I’ve learned and posted about Speech Disabilities in Therapeutic Riding and Communication Techniques for Low/Nonverbal Riders. Their perspective focuses on the social communication skills side of language development and using responsive communication strategies to engage the child – which is something anyone can do. These posts summarize the basic and most helpful concepts relating to the therapeutic riding instructor. In fact, there’s so much I want to share that I’ve divided it into several posts that I’ll be putting up over the next few days, so as not to overwhelm you with too much reading all at once. This first post is some background and the stages of communication, the second one is tips for responsive communications, and the third is about play. I hope you find this helpful for working with your riders with language delays!

Disclaimer: I paraphrased everything in my own words, so I hope I remained faithful to the book, but know there may be human error. I highly recommend you read the book yourself, it’s an easy read with big print, pictures, stories and poems – aka it speaks to most learning styles. It is especially interesting if you have a toddler at home who is on his way to talking (aka me). I’m not related or affiliated to this book in any way (other than if you click the link above Amazon gives the blog a little kickback), but this is my own personal recommendation. I bought the book 2 years ago because it got good reviews and finally got around to reading it, and wish I’d done so earlier.

Learning to Talk is a Social Act

According to Play to Talk, when a child has a language delay, two things typically happen. First, traditional speech therapy models use a highly trained speech therapist (SLP, or speech-language pathologist) who focuses on structure, articulation, and forms. This happens in the environment of directive learning, in which the teacher chooses what to teach and controls the interactions. The child receives the therapy primarily with the therapist, less at home with the parents. Second, the parents are unaware of all the pre-talk stages children go through (because most kids go through them so easily and quickly), so they focus on getting the kid to talk-talk-talk long before they have gone through the required pre-talk stages. This causes a lot of stress for both parent and child, as it is impossible for the child to do what they ask.

The book Play to Talk offers an alternative called “Communicating Partners,” which is a program that comes alongside traditional therapy models to hit the rest of the bases. First, parents and caregivers do the “therapy” at home in the child’s daily life, where the child typically first learns language anyway, by using the activities that interest and involve them. This happens in a child-directed environment, where you let the child choose the activity and follow suit. Second, it teaches parents to focus on developing the non-verbal communication skills needed prior to talking by engaging the child more frequently in longer interactions, using responsive communication strategies, to guide them through the stages of communicative development from pre-talking to talking to friendship.

Play to Talk takes an interesting view in that “communication problems are ultimately interactive problems” – it’s not the language, but the use of language in social life.  They point out that parents, “who know little about what children need to do before speech and who are eager for the child to begin talking…often push forward with words, [so] children are taught language without knowing much about communicating. The result is frequently a ‘language performer’ who can recite long passages and answer questions, but who seldom genuinely communicates with others.” I thought this was so interesting. I’m sure this is the case with many children, but I personally don’t think that all language delays fit into this category, because there are some children with physical language impairments that socialize just fine. However, the point is, learning to talk is not just a physical act, but a social one as well! And the communication skills piece, which starts way before one learns to talk, is a huge part of the whole picture that cannot be forgotten.

Anyone Can Use Responsive Communication Techniques

…including you, TR Instructor! This is where you come in. While you cannot do speech therapy unless you are a licensed SLP, anyone can incorporate “responsive communication” strategies that address the social side of learning to talk. What more, therapeutic riding is an ideal environment to incorporate responsive communication: it is part of the rider’s weekly routine, it interests and involves them, and there are plenty opportunities for social interactions and play.

Understand The Stages of Communication

Play to Talk outlines 5 stages of communicative development, from not interacting with others to having relationships. This is helpful to know so…

  1. you understand that children take many little steps before ever talking that don’t just involve physically forming sounds, and
  2. you know where the child is developmentally so you can meet them where they’re at and lead them to the next step, instead of expecting too much from them.

Here are the stages, in brief:

  1. Early interaction skills
    • child develops a back and forth style of interacting with others
    • uses actions and noises, not necessarily words
    • social play – accepts others and participates (vs. isolated or parallel play)
    • imitation and modeling – copies others spontaneously (vs. rote repetition)
    • turn-taking – pays attention to others and responds (vs. one-sided participation, or just being with someone)
    • you: increase the child’s social interactions by helping them express behaviors they already know how to do
  2. Nonverbal communication
    • child exchanges purposeful clear messages – “potential communication”
    • child is now interacting regularly – continues social play, imitating, turn-taking
    • child vocalizes more
    • you: respond to the child’s natural actions and noises so they learn to communicate first non-verbally then verbally; give them lots of “interactive practice”
    • note: some children need more practice at this stage because pre-verbal noises may be physically difficult for them and/or they don’t volunteer many noises
  3. Language
    • child uses words socially, not just to get needs met
    • child is now starting to talk and use language to communicate in real life daily situations
    • you: use words that allow the child to actively participate in their daily life, to describe what is happening, to communicate verbally what he already is saying behaviorally
  4. Conversation
    • child uses a back and forth style with language
    • child is now talking more and needs to refine their conversation skills
    • child is learning to stay with people who are talking and take turns with words
    • “throw” words back and forth like throwing a ball (focused on throwing, not catching)
    • you: use the same strategies as before but now with words
  5. Friendship
    • child has social sensitivity and emotional control – “social savvy” (vs. rote performing), empathy, civility
    • how to make a friend and be a friend, starts in the home as parents and siblings are their first model for friendship
    • this stage often takes more time

Disabilities such as language delay and autism may affect the stages or stall the child’s progress. Affects of disabilities may include:

  • child struggles more with paying attention, attending, joining in
  • child struggles with physically forming the words
  • child needs more practice with pre-verbal sound
  • child knows a lot of words and can recite long passages, but can’t carry on a conversation
  • child isn’t available to learn to talk because they are not socially available to interact

So that’s some interesting information. The next post will start the actual tips.


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!


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