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How to Engage Your Child in Conversation

Posted on October 17, 2019 by All In

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Written by Ridhima Batra (Speech Therapist, SPD)

“My 5-year-old son does not like talking to me or responding to my questions. He talks only when he wants something from me.”

If you are facing similar challenges as a caregiver, here are some useful tips to help you engage your child in conversation.

What is a conversation?

A conversation is an interaction between two individuals with the purpose of building relationships, sharing one’s interests or learning new information. It is important that both parties take turns to speak. A conversation goes back and forth, with every turn being a response to the previous one. Typically, children learn the rules of conversation by taking part in everyday conversations with adults around them.

Six strategies to have a conversation with your child

1. Communication can start even before the child learns to use words

Conversations with children can begin even before they start using words. Before children learn how to talk, they use other ways to initiate a conversation, such as:

  • looking at the adult,
  • pointing at something,
  • doing an action, or
  • making a sound.

When a child does any of these actions, parents should try to guess what the child is trying to say and continue the conversation by using words. Here’s an example:

Tom: Pah (Tom starts a conversation by pointing to his spilled juice and making a sound.)

Mum: Uh-oh! The juice is spilled. (Mum continues the conversation by talking about the spill.)

2. Select appropriate materials

  • The material or topic of a conversation should be age-appropriate.

For instance, 8-year-old Ben did not respond when his mother talked to him about the story of Sherlock Holmes as he had no interest in the story. Ben would have responded better if his mother spoke about topics like robots, which are more age-appropriate.

  • Let the child choose the material.

When children are given a chance to choose, they would be more involved in the conversation. For example, you can try to ask the child whether he or she wants to play with Lego or a toy car. Once the child selects a toy, you can continue the conversation based on his or her selection to increase his or her interest in the conversation.

 3. Use daily routines to have conversations with your child

Many conversations take place naturally when we engage in daily routines at home, such as mealtimes and bathtimes. When parents talk to their children during everyday activities, children will learn words and phrases associated with the routines naturally, without the need for any special toys or materials.

In the example below, John learnt to say “soap” because his mother repeated the word during bathtime daily.

Mum: Let’s wash your hands with soap; let’s wash your legs with soap; and let’s wash your tummy with soap.

John: Soap.

4. Use an interesting voice

Children enjoy it when adults speak to them in a lively tone. Here are two examples.

  • Repeat some words.

 “Time to brush your teeth, brush, brush, brush”

  • Make certain sounds.

“Here comes the dog, woof, woof, woof”

5. Sustaining the interaction

To keep the conversation going with your child, you can use these simple strategies:

  • Follow the child’s lead.

While talking, children often make spontaneous comments about what interests them. You can follow your child’s lead and continue the conversation by talking about your child’s interest.

For example, when Sarah started talking about the bird in the illustration during story time, her mother followed Sarah’s lead. Sarah’s mother did not continue the story but started talking about the bird instead.

  • Pause.

After you have said something or asked a question, always pause to signal to the child that it is his or her turn to respond. The pause should be long enough to give the child sufficient time to think through a response.

  • Repeat and expand.

Children often use simple words or phrases while talking. You can help to expand your child’s communicative attempts into meaningful words or phrases by using the correct grammar and adding new information into the sentences.

For example:

Child:   Go zoo.

Dad:    Yes, we are going to the zoo.

Child:   See elephants.

Dad:    We can see the elephants. They are big and strong.

6. Conversations should be fun and not meant to test the child

Children do not like it when parents ask them multiple questions just to check whether they remember what has been taught. To start or maintain the interaction with your child, remember to keep the conversation fun!

In summary:

  1. You can have conversations with your child, even before your child learns to talk.
  2. Always select an age-appropriate topic or material when speaking to your child.
  3. Use daily routines to have conversations with your child.
  4. Talk in an interesting tone.
  5. Pause long enough to allow the child to respond and expand the child’s communicative attempts into meaningful words or phrases.
  6. Conversations should be fun and are not meant to test the child’s knowledge.

Conversations with young children can make a big difference in their language development. So do go ahead and have a conversation with your child while keeping in mind the tips above. Have fun!


SPD is an All In Preferred Partner.

SPD is a charity in Singapore set up to help people with disabilities of all ages to maximise their potential and integrate them into mainstream society.

This guide was originally published by SPD and republished with minor editorial amendments by All In.

All content found on the All In website, has been created for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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