From a Mother’s Heart: What can I do to help my child move from speaking in short phrases to sentences?

Let’s first look at the cause in order to figure out what to do. Why does this occur? Multiple reasons can be involved…


If the child has apraxia or reduced articulation, the energy cost for producing longer words and phrases is greater. So the child may be able to give more information, but chooses not to because of the overall energy cost. In this case, I would honor the shorten sentences or phrases as being acceptable until articulation is improved through the methods below.


Auditory Processing Issues

The 8th cranial nerve is responsible for encoding sound (not hearing) and filtering background noise. When language is novel, usually during the first three years of life, sounds can get mis-encoded. For example a “d” and a “t” are made the exact same way in the English language. It is only through the 8th cranial nerve that we are able to decode the difference of “da” and “ta” Therefore “dad” may be heard as “tad”. Multiple reference points get stored for the same word. It has nothing to do with intelligence; the child knows who dad is. When trying to rapidly pull multiple words to form a sentence, the energy cost is high, resulting in shortened phrases to answer questions or make comments.

Expressive Language-Syntax

Similar to auditory processing, the syntax — arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences — may be affected because sounds get mis-encoded, again causing an increased energy cost for sentence formulation.

Working Memory

Saying phrases for response can also be related to reduced working memory, which occurs both in people with ASD and with Down syndrome. The number one reason is from abnormal dendritic growth in the brain. Dendrites help us to form associations and memories. The more valid dendritic connections we have, the better our associations and memories.

Having a conversation is dependent on the number of proper dendritic connections. Reduced working memory will reduce the children’s ability to make associations quickly, affecting their overall response, both in length of utterance as well as accuracy.

What can be done to increase length of utterance?

For speech, apraxia and oral motor issues, traditional speech therapy would be the most helpful. I especially like the PROMPTS program to not only help with production of single sounds, but also to connect words into phrases and sentences.

For language-based issues, my first “go to” is to work with categories. The rationale for using categories goes in part with auditory processing. As mentioned earlier, due to an auditory processing delay, sounds can get mis-stored, causing a domino effect on working memory and expressive language.

In the Brilliant Learning book and on the Brilliant Learning Online website, I talk about using categorization as one of the first tasks to do with young learners. However, it can be used with any age child and is especially needed when there is an expressive language delay.

Working with categories helps to reorganize the books on the library shelf of our brain. When our storage is better, our recall and processing speed for retrieval naturally increase, thus improving expressive language for conversation.

How do I work on categories with my child?

Step 1:

Choose several pictures in the general categories. From Lakeshore Learning, you can order a set of category cards or you can make your own from Google images. Of course, for children who prefer words, you would skip the images.

Categories should include: food, animals, clothes, toys, transportation and home.

Step 2:

Model for the child simple ways of combining cards by categories. Start with choosing three cards for each category. You might put a horse and cow together for the animal category and ask the child to choose one more card to complete the category from a choice of a picture of French fries or a dog. Continue in this way for each of the other five categories. This activity would be a good time to include movement as well. Maybe you could build a small obstacle course and ask the child to choose a picture, move through the course and place the picture on the wall.

Step 3:

Once the child can receptively categorize objects with ease, add an expressive request. “Tell me which object would go next in this category.” Still provide picture choices, but the child not only has to choose it, but call it by name. At this time, you are still only requesting the child provide one more object for each category. You are starting the category as described in Step 2 and the child is adding one more.

Step 4:

When the child can verbally add one more object to each category with ease, reduce your input by adding only one object per category and ask the child to select and name two to five more objects for each category.

Step 5:

Next, increase the difficulty of the categories. For instance, instead of the general category of animals, divide the category into farm and zoo. Continue in that way with all categories. So that when one level is mastered, you add another one to create a higher level of mastery. An example of a high level of categorization is naming all the things you can think of that are green and that you can eat.

Step 6:

The last step is to take the pictures (or word cards) away to make sure encoding has occurred and can be used rapidly at a conversational level. For instance, name all the farm animals you can think of in thirty seconds. The goal would be for the child to name at least six to ten items.

Step 7:

When categorizing objects by higher-level details, make sure to ask the child why the objects go together. Many times, the child can categorize objects receptively at a much higher ability than they can explain why two objects go together. Encouraging the expressive piece is very important to foster higher levels of logic and reason.

If your child is having difficulty seeing the details of why objects are grouped together, which is common with children with ASD, model this task for them and talk out loud to show why you chose the grouping. Example: a school bus, a banana and a raincoat…”I put these objects together because they are all yellow.”

Please see Sensory Integration and Learning and The Category Game in the Brilliant Learning Online Course for more ideas on how to expand categories with the verbal child and to incorporate movement during learning.