Early Language Development

A Powerful Little Tool for Building Language: O.W.L (Observe. Wait. Listen.)

Baby MommySeems a bit counterintuitive to give a tip for building early language skills encouraging parents and educators to stop talking.  However, while this tip is simple, it can be  a powerful technique to build your child’s early communication skills.  Not to mention unexpectedly challenging.

Often when parents play with their children, in an effort to get their child talking, the parent ends up doing all the talking instead.  They ask questions.  They give directions.  They bombard their little ones with so many words that they quickly & unintentionally take over the entire interaction.

This is where O.W.L (Observe. Wait. Listen.) comes in.


Watch your child & find out what he or she is interested in.  What direction is she looking?  Is she pointing at something?  Examining a toy in her hands?  Just like adults, children are most communicative about the things they are interested in, not the things we want them to be interested in.  Even if that amazing new “learning” toy you just bought your toddler looks exciting to you, if she is more interested in the sound of a trash truck outside, you will be much more successful engaging her in an interaction if you go look out the window together.


Here is where it gets a little harder.  Once parents discover what interests their child, they quickly launch into a lengthy narrative.  It’s not just a “Trash truck!”  It’s a “Big green trash truck!  Oh look!  There are two men on the truck!  They’re picking up the trash can!  Boom!  The trash just went in the truck!  Wow!  Look at that!”

Stop.  Not so fast.  Get down on your child’s level.  Look at her expectantly.  Lean forward.  Wait.  Waiting is an incredibly effective way to encourage children to initiate an interaction or process and respond to something you’ve said.  Most likely you will not be used to so much silence during interactions with your child.  Get comfortable with it.  Remind yourself to wait by counting silently.  Can you wait 5 seconds?  How about 7?  Sounds easy enough, right?  You’ll probably be surprised just how little wait time you’ve given your child in the past.


Now you’ve waited and your child has said a word, made a sound, or gestured.  For little ones with developing oral motor, speech, and language skills, figuring out exactly what he or she is trying to tell you can be challenging at times.  Don’t give up.  Look for clues such as eye gaze & gestures.  Tell your child, to “Show me.”  Any effort you make to convey to your child that her attempts to communicate are important, even if you don’t always understand her the first time, encourages her to keep trying.

Go O.W.L With Your Little One

Observe.  Wait.  Listen.  Three simple things you can do to build language in every interaction with your child.  Actually doing it?  Not quite as easy.  Try it for a week or just for the day.  It might surprise you how powerful this little tool can be.

Want to Learn More?

The OWL strategy was developed by The Hanen Centre, a non-for-profit organization that develops programs and resources for parents of children with language delays. For more information on The Hanen Centre, visit www.hanen.org.

You can also visit our resources page and don’t forget to stop by our blog & sign up to receive more tips & tricks about early speech, language & literacy development in children.



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