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LSL Strategies

How to Create a Rich Learning Environment at Home—for Children at All Stages

Throughout childhood, the family is the most influential presence in a child’s life. And because so much learning happens at home, the Clarke team coaches families how to create language-rich environments in all areas of a child’s life. With Clarke’s support, families learn various listening and spoken language (LSL) strategies to support language development through play and age-appropriate activities, and share experiences and questions with other families in Clarke’s support groups.

But many families feel unsure of their ability to execute a series of rigid clinical strategies at home—a sentiment often expressed to the Clarke team.

“First things first,” responds Sherri Fickenscher, MS, LSLS Cert. AVEd, education support specialist at Clarke, “whether your child has a diagnosed hearing difference or not, you already know how to communicate with them! Take a deep breath and relax… you got this.”

Importantly—as Clarke professionals frequently emphasize—families are already equipped with many of these skills. A significant number of LSL strategies are intuitive, mirroring how adults naturally interact with babies and young children. Many families are already using these strategies without even realizing it.

“What do you do when your baby cries?” says Sherri. “You go and pick your baby up! That’s responding to the way they’re communicating their need to you. If we respond to children by engaging in turn-taking, regardless of the level of their hearing loss, then we are already building strong communication partnerships.”

To support this important work, we’ve compiled a collection of tips and strategies—sorted by developmental stage—which can serve as a resource for families and caregivers eager to establish (or enhance) their learning environment at home.

In using this list, please keep in mind that all children learn differently, and for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, development will always be related to three critical areas:

  • Age when child began using hearing technology full-time
  • Access to qualified professionals (like the Clarke team)
  • Level of parental involvement and engagement in the LSL process

And while these suggestions should serve as a valuable guide to families, they are no substitute for the interdisciplinary support required by children who are deaf or hard of hearing—including an audiologist, speech-language pathologist and teacher of the deaf. Sherri notes, “It is a professional’s role to observe your communication with your child and to support you in taking it to the next level.”

To learn more about Clarke’s programs and services for children of all ages and developmental stages, contact us at info@clarkeschools.org.

Note: The sample strategies that follow are meant to optimize a child’s auditory skill development. These LSL strategies are critical to a child’s overall development and are designed to activate the auditory centers of the brain. If these strategies are in place and you feel confident using them, feel free to move to the strategies listed in the other areas of development.

Tips and strategies, by developmental stage

  • Beginning Listeners
  • Pre-Talkers
  • Beginning Talkers
  • Established Conversationalists

Baby with hearing aid

For children who are deaf or hard of hearing, this time period is defined as 6-12 months after they’ve established full-time use of their hearing technology. Full-time use of technology is directly correlated to a child’s ability to reach their full potential, so to make the most of this crucial time period, young children should have access to sound as soon as possible.

Below are sample strategies to support this developmental stage.

STRATEGY: Monitor the Listening Environment

Children with typical hearing learn early to tune out background noise, but children who are deaf or hard of hearing are not able to do this very easily. Television, music or multiple speakers in the same area create a difficult listening environment for them. The optimal listening environment is one where there are not many sounds all vying for your child’s auditory attention. Keeping it quieter will make it easier for your child to hear those quiet speech sounds like ‘s,’ ‘sh’ and ‘f,’ for example. (Monitoring the environment is also a form of acoustic highlighting, which will be discussed in “Beginning Talkers.”)

This doesn’t mean you can’t listen to music! The Clarke team encourages a good dance party, so turn on your favorite tunes and dance away. Watch what your child does when the music stops.

STRATEGY: Parentese/Motherese

Studies show that regardless of age, ethnicity or socio-economic status, most adults use this type of speech with infants or toddlers. Even children as young as two to three years of age use motherese when talking to babies or their baby dolls. This type of speech typically includes a higher pitch voice which emphasizes vowels (the first sounds babies produce) sing-song tone of voice, and lots of natural inflection. Research has shown that this practice helps children ‘crack the code’ of language. (Parentese/Motherese is also a form of acoustic highlighting, which will be discussed in “Beginning Talkers.”)

STRATEGY: Pointing Out Sounds in the Environment

This is often accompanied with pointing to the ear, showing excitement on the face and stating “I heard that!”

  • Suggested activity: Take a “listening walk” around the house to listen to everyday sounds that we take for granted (e.g., toilet flushing, water running, microwave beeping, footsteps). Sherri suggests checking out The Listening Walk, by Paul Showers, as an accompaniment to this activity. (And join us at Clarke’s Listening Walk at the Zoo on May 22, 2022 at the Philadelphia Zoo!)

STRATEGY: Positioning

Does your child have one ear that has more hearing than the other? Be sure to position yourself on that side whenever possible. Also, keep your child in the “listening bubble.” This means speaking when your child is within three feet of you. The best distance will depend on their degree of hearing, but closer is always better for a beginning listener. (Positioning is also a form of acoustic highlighting, which will be discussed in “Beginning Talkers.”)

STRATEGY: Sing

Singing is natural for most parents—often until a hearing loss diagnosis is confirmed and suddenly parents find themselves quiet at a time when their child needs exposure to language. Singing gives your child the benefits of parentese/motherese (see above) when it might seem difficult or unnatural to parents. Singing exposes children to natural vocal rhythms and has a way of capturing attention. Singing and listening to music is a tremendous activity to tap into the listening brain while having fun too!

STRATEGY: Auditory Sandwich

We use this strategy to encourage children to rely on auditory information, rather than visual information.  When we use the auditory sandwich, we engage the listening centers of the brain prior to engaging the visual centers of the brain. Here’s how it works:

  • Present a sound/word in three stages: First without an accompanying visual cue, then with a visual cue, finally without the visual cue again.
  • For example, a caregiver might say, “A cow says, ‘moo.’” Then they’d repeat the sentence while showing a toy cow. Lastly, they would remove the toy and repeat the sentence a third time: “A cow says ‘moo.’”

(Auditory sandwich is also a form of acoustic highlighting, which will be discussed in “Beginning Talkers.”)

Before children begin talking, they indicate their understanding of spoken words. Many caregivers expect to move directly to talking, but this is an important phase. Babies typically listen for a full year before saying their first word, so the child who is deaf or hard of hearing often needs that full year of listening before saying their first word too. This waiting can be filled with anxiety for families as they’re eager to hear their child speak. However, if the focus is solely on the first expressive word, then caregivers may miss all the exciting milestones that lead up to that first word—like watching a child learn to understand receptive language, or the first time a caregiver says “bye-bye” and sees the child wave. These events reveal important information: the child’s technology is working!  Sound not only has meaning, but words have meaning too. These are reasons to celebrate, as a child who is deaf or hard of hearing is preparing to talk.

This pre-talking phase is also defined by vocalizing, babbling (putting a consonant and vowel sound together) and jargoning (connecting a long stream of vowels and consonants together). Caregivers are coached to listen carefully for a true word.

Once the child has worn their technology for 6-12 months, and depending on their age, but as close to 10-14 months as possible, the Clarke team is hoping to hear that first word. Until then, and even after, Clarke professionals—in collaboration with families—can continue to focus on the child’s understanding of the spoken word (receptive language).

Below are sample strategies to support this developmental stage.

STRATEGY: Take Turns

Research is abundantly clear: turn-taking between a child and their caregivers builds stronger brains! Another term often used for this back-and-forth is “serve and return.” Imagine a tennis match when you’re interacting with your child as a reminder to take turns when speaking. When someone hits you a ball, your goal is to return that ball. Using turn-taking, caregivers learn to wait for a non-verbal or verbal response from a child before they take another turn in the communication exchange.

Infants may coo or kick their feet as a conversational turn, while a three-year-old child is expected to give an appropriate verbal response. The goal is to elicit participation from the infant or child.

With infants this can also involve imitation. When a baby coos at the caregiver, the caregiver can take a turn by cooing back. Or the adult can pretend to have a conversation with the baby even though there are no true words. For instance:

BABY: coos

ADULT: coos back imitating baby

BABY: coos

ADULT: “Wow!  Tell me more about that!”

BABY: smiles

ADULT: “oh...did that make you happy when that happened?”

The content of the turn-taking will eventually become more complex, and this LSL strategy should always be in use even when your child becomes an established conversationalist. 

STRATEGY: Share Joint Attention/ Follow the Child’s Lead

Joint attention, or following a child’s lead, describes when a child and adult share the same focus on an object, action or person. It’s considered a building block for social competence, and usually becomes possible between the ages of six to nine months. Caregivers are encouraged to speak to their child during joint attention, which promotes communication and learning. Research shows that a child’s vocabulary increases at a faster rate when joint attention is established, and the caregiver attempts to immerse the child in the language they believe matches the child’s thoughts. Sharing joint attention is a form of communication, so pay attention to your child’s eye gaze and talk about what they’re looking at. 

In order to follow a child’s lead, adults in their environment act as keen observers and acknowledge what seems to be of most interest to the child. Caregivers can use a child’s favorite activities or objects as a springboard for things to talk about. A classic example of this is when a child receives a gift and is more interested in the bow or wrapping paper than they are in the gift! Many adults try to shift the child’s focus to the gift, but to engage in joint attention, allow the child to explore that wrapping paper while layering on language.  It might look something like this:

BABY: rips paper

ADULT: (pointing to their ear or the child’s ear): “Oh, I hear that paper ripping. That is fun, isn’t it?”

BABY: puts paper in mouth

ADULT: “Hmm. Does that taste yummy? Paper is for ripping, not eating. Let’s rip some more.” (taking the interaction back to what the child was previously interested in, so acknowledging what the child showed attention to, but attempting a shift)

BABY: rips paper again and excitedly waves their hands with paper in it

ADULT: “Wow! You are holding that paper tightly. Let’s listen to it again as we rip it. That is noisy, isn’t it?”

STRATEGY: Narration/Model Language

Talk, talk, talk about purposeful and meaningful occurrences throughout the day. Early intervention professionals will often use the analogy of a sports commentator who announces play-by-play what is happening on the field. During diaper changing for example, the caregiver can narrate: “Ooh, I think your diaper is wet. We need a new diaper. Up you go (picking child up). Let’s go upstairs. Up-Up-Up we go. We are going up the stairs.  Where are those diapers? You need a new diaper.” This can be exhausting, and it isn’t necessary all day with every activity, but the pre-talking child needs to hear lots of words to understand language. “Feed their brain just like you feed their bodies,” says Sherri.

Try Both Self-Talk and Parallel Talk.

With self-talk, the caregiver talks about what they’re doing. “I’m stirring your cereal. Your cereal looks hot! I will blow on it to cool your cereal. [blow] That’s better.”

Using parallel talk, the caregiver describes what the child is doing. “You are watching Grammy stir your cereal. You see the cereal, don’t you? It looks yummy. Watch me stir the cereal.”

Enunciate and Slow Down.

“Mr. Rogers is one of my favorite examples of how best to speak to children,” says Sherri. Consider when listening to Mr. Rogers how easy he is to understand. This is because he speaks at a good rate for children—and adults—to be able to process what he’s saying. He is calming and enunciates when he speaks. Try slowing down when you are speaking to your child and be mindful of the noise in the environment as well as how you enunciate your words. Remaining true to who you are and remaining natural are key, however, so if Mr. Rogers just doesn’t connect with you, consider a person whom you always seem to hear and understand, and try emulating them. (Modulating rate of speech is also a form of acoustic highlighting, which will be discussed in “Beginning Talkers.”)

STRATEGY: Wait Time

Wait time is the pause used between an adult’s interaction with a child and the child’s expected response. This pause allows the child the necessary time to process the auditory information and formulate a response. The amount of time to wait before continuing a response varies, but most professionals agree that eight seconds is the minimum. When you are waiting and remaining engaged with your child, 8 seconds can seem really quite long but when your child responds, it is certainly worth the wait. Some things to consider when using this LSL strategy:

    • Maintain eye contact.
    • Raise your eyebrows to indicate you are interested and waiting for a response.
    • Lean your body in towards the child.
    • Count to eight slowly in your head.
    • It can be helpful to think about taking a long, deep breath as you wait.

Waiting isn’t just hard for children, it’s hard for adults too! Without using wait time, taking turns (listed under “Pre-Talkers” but relevant throughout the LSL journey) becomes difficult. This is a life-long communication skill that we are never too young—or too old—to master. While slowing down and taking time can be difficult, it yields great results.

toddler with hearing aids and mom

Your child has said their first word! This is a momentous occasion, so feel free to celebrate! LSL strategies continue to be important as your child is now considered a beginning talker. Now the goal becomes to expand vocabulary and the number of words your child uses.

Below are sample strategies to support this developmental stage.

STRATEGY: Auditory Closure

Auditory closure is one way to engage your beginning talker in the art of turn-taking and building conversation. Auditory closure occurs when an adult begins a song or sentence but doesn’t complete it – prompting a response. This encourages the child to give a verbal response, which often happens naturally.

Remember that favorite book your child insists you read each night? What would happen if you started reading a page and then stopped? Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle is a favorite for many children. Try reading half a sentence, then pause and wait to see if your child responds.

Singing is another great way to practice auditory closure. What would happen if you started to sing “Baby shark-“ and stopped there?  What would your child do?  Would they move their body to indicate they recognize you are singing? Would they vocalize the next phrase? You may be surprised, so give it a try.

STRATEGY: The Expectant Look

The expectant look is a non-verbal signal given to a child to indicate a response is expected. The expectant look can include any one of the following physical cues or all of the cues in combination:  

  • Raised eyebrows
  • Direct eye contact with the child
  • Lean in towards the child
  • Slight tilt of the head

The expectant look lets the child know that you consider them a partner in communication. This LSL strategy helps to encourage turn-taking and giving attention to the speaker.

STRATEGY: Wait Time

Pre-talkers needed practice with wait time as they were learning about how communication works, and they still do now that they are beginning to form words. “I picture a pause button in my head,” says Sherri. “This helps me to remember that I need to pause and wait for a response from a child, or another communication partner, before I comment again.”

STRATEGY: Acoustic Highlighting

Acoustic Highlighting is an umbrella term that encompasses many other LSL strategies. Parentese, positioning, being mindful of background noise, our rate of speech, repetition and expansion are all types of acoustic highlighting. Often when referring to acoustic highlighting, however, most professionals define this as an added emphasis on a particular word or sound so that it becomes more audible, or pops, for the listener.

To use acoustic highlighting, the caregiver may pause slightly before the targeted word or sound and then increase or decrease their intensity slightly while being mindful of their rate of speech. Intensity refers to the power of a sound. “Keep in mind that louder is not always better. I prefer the word ‘intensity’ over ‘loudness’ so that we keep ourselves in check by not speaking too loudly. When we speak louder, often the softer sounds of speech, like the ‘s,’ ‘f’ and ‘th’ sounds are even harder to hear. That’s why keeping our vocal volume, or intensity, at a normal level is so important,” says Sherri. (If you are unsure if you need to work on this skill, ask your Clarke team member!)

Acoustic highlighting draws the child’s attention to a sound, word or even grammatical structure that the speaker would like to emphasize for the child. The emphasis might be used to correct a grammatical formation, add detail or practice incorporating some new vocabulary, for example.

Singing is a wonderful way to practice acoustic highlighting as we naturally highlight our voices when we sing by changing pitches and durational patterns.

teacher and students talking

An established conversationalist is comfortable chatting and asking questions. How to know if your child is an established conversationalist: Don’t be surprised if you catch yourself wishing your child would stop talking for a minute! It’s a positive milestone and something many families experience.

Below are sample strategies to support this developmental stage.

STRATEGY: Ask open-ended questions

Once your child has mastered yes/no questions—because this is a necessary developmental skill—begin asking open-ended questions.  Open-ended questions are questions that require more than a yes/no answer. They keep the conversational volley going while yes/no questions tend to stop conversations. They also offer adults the opportunity to gain insight into what the child is thinking, feeling or curious about. It often takes practice to develop this habit.  Here are some examples of how to get started:

  • “What was something good that happened today?” (instead of “Did you have a good day?”)
  • “Who was in school today?” (instead of “Was Roberto at school today?”)
  • “How did that make you feel?” (instead of “Did that make you happy?”)
  • “When did you play outside today?” (instead of “Did you play outside today?”)

Remember when “Why?” was your child's favorite question? “Why” questions help a child make sense of their world. And now it can be your turn. For example, try asking:

  • Why do you think that happened?
  • Why do you think we need to brush our teeth?

When adults begin asking “Why?” questions, the answer is often “I don’t know.” But caregivers can encourage guessing. You can also help by offering suggested answers.

Open-ended questions encourage critical thinking skills, so create a list to help you until it becomes more intuitive.

STRATEGY: Expansion

Expansion is used to expose a child to new vocabulary and to model longer sentences. Expansion can be used in naturally occurring conversations. In a simple expansion, the adult repeats back what the child has said adding something new. Using acoustic highlighting (discussed in “Beginning Talkers”) is a strategy that can be utilized to give additional emphasis to the words you are modeling for expansion.  Here’s an example:

CHILD: “I eat a apple.”

ADULT: “You ate [correcting grammar] a crunchy red [new vocabulary and additional detail] apple for a snack today [again adding detail and expanding the sentence].

Since the adult is talking about what the child has brought up, the conversation is of interest to the child. The use of expansion is used to increase the number of words a child says in a sentence and the complexity of their language.

STRATEGY: Sabotage

Despite the negative connotation, “sabotage” refers to the method of playfully creating an unusual or unexpected situation which causes the child to take notice and respond. Sabotage occurs when an adult creates an element of surprise that they would like the child to notice. The goal of sabotage is to create more opportunities for a child to practice a skill. Here are two examples:

  1. Getting ready to go outside, the adult tries to put on their child’s shoes.

CHILD: [laughing]

ADULT: “What’s so funny? I can’t get my shoes on.”

CHILD: “Stop, mommy!”

ADULT: “Why? I want to go outside. I need my shoes.”

CHILD: “But those are my shoes!”

ADULT: “What? Oh my gosh! You’re right. What was I thinking? I made a mistake. Thanks for helping!”

  1. Sabotage can also be used to build self-advocacy skills with older children. After the adult checks the child’s hearing technology equipment in the morning, they give it back to the child with the battery not in, or not functioning or the equipment turned off. Wait for the child to notice and do something in response to this. If they hand the equipment back to the adult, the adult could encourage language:

ADULT: “This isn’t my hearing aid…” [They could also be silly and try to put it on!]

CHILD: “That’s mine!”

ADULT: “Yes, this is your hearing aid. Why did you give it to me?”

CHILD: “I don’t know.”

ADULT: “Hmm... I think you do. Is something wrong with your hearing aid?” [This is an intentional yes/no question so the child can feel successful and the adult can continue the conversation.]

CHILD: “Yes!”

ADULT: “You could say, ‘Something is wrong with my hearing aid.’”

CHILD: “Something’s wrong.”

ADULT: “Thanks for telling me. Let’s check it out together.”

While these suggestions should serve as a valuable guide to families, they are no substitute for the interdisciplinary support required by children who are deaf or hard of hearing—including an audiologist, speech-language pathologist and teacher of the deaf. Sherri notes, “It is a professional’s role to observe your communication with your child and to support you in taking it to the next level.”

To learn more about Clarke’s programs and services for children of all ages and developmental stages, contact us at info@clarkeschools.org.  

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