Model, Wait, and Reinforce:

3 Steps to Teach Your Child to Use a Word

Rogers Bridge » Receptive and Expressive Language Delays » Model, Wait, and Reinforce

One of the first strategies speech therapists use with a new client is to model, wait, and reinforce. This approach is highly successful for some children as it is a natural way of progressing to verbal language. While this may not work for all children, it is a good strategy to try with your child whether or not you are worried about their language development.

Most parents and caregivers have remarkably similar behaviors when a baby is in the house. From birth, phrases like “Hi baby! Mama is here,” or “Dada loves you,” are heard. In addition to hearing mama and dada frequently, these sound combinations are easy to produce and are usually a child’s first words. Learning words starts with modeling. Equally important is giving the child a chance to respond and reinforcing the response. It takes all three components to shape sounds into a word that has meaning to the child. 

"At 6, 12, and 18 months, I honestly wasn't sure if she would ever talk. Hearing her express her ideas, have conversations, and sing (!) now at 3.5 regularly brings tears to my eyes." — Gina D. (full review lower)


Before your child could even speak, you modeled words for them whenever you spoke to your child or your child heard you talking to someone else. Narration is when you talk about everything that you are doing or what is going on in the environment. When you are at the store, you may tell your child, “Oh look at the pretty, red apples. Those will be yummy in your tummy.” Sometimes narration is enough for a child to develop language, but some children are unable to pick out words in a sentence to make sense of them. This is when modeling one word at a time is important. Speech therapists use favorite activities to motivate and keep the child engaged. If you want the child to say, “ball,” give them the ball each time you model the word. Remember to have an excited voice and use expectant facial expressions to keep the child’s attention. After modeling the word for a while (this may be a few minutes or a few days), it is time to wait for the child to respond.


This can be the hardest part for parents. Silence can be uncomfortable for anyone. It is assumed that someone is silent because they do not know what to say. This can be true but waiting gives the child time to process and figure out what you expect from them. Give them time to come up with a response. I like to slowly count to 10 or 15 in my head. If the child still has not attempted to produce a sound or word, then you go back to modeling.


This is difficult for many parents as well. You may not recognize your child’s first attempts at communication when it does not sound anything like a word. I like to relate this to learning how to run to help a parent understand the process of developing verbal communication. A child does not start off running. A child will progress from crawling to standing, cruising to walking, and finally running. Producing words is very similar. First children coo, then babble, then use word approximations (a shortened and easier to produce word), words, phrases, and finally sentences. Their first response is not likely to sound anything like the word you have modeled. Treat their response as if they have said the word. Clap, squeal, give them a high five, give them a kiss, or say, “Good job,” are perfect accolades to let a child know you are pleased with their response. Be sure to also reward them with whatever word you are targeting. If you are working with a ball, give them the ball in addition to your excitement. This is how we shape sounds into having meaning for the child. The child does something, in this case it is an attempt to produce a word, and we reward them by our reactions to the word. This step is crucial in motivating verbal language. A child may not know the meaning of the sounds they have produced but they understand that you enjoyed it. This motivates the child to try again and again.



If your child is not following the typical progression of acquiring language, please call for a free phone consultation. We will help you determine if a speech language therapy is needed for your child. If you have tried the Model, Wait, and Reinforce strategy and it was unsuccessful, your child may benefit from speech language therapy.


"Jessie is such a loving and caring therapist. Her passion for helping her patients and families show every visit. She is open to what works for each patient while being effective and productive. She is responsive and able to adapt to her patient's moods. Speech therapy has never been my son's favorite, and he has been to known to be a bit difficult, but it never slowed Jessie down. She was always so loving and made the sessions fun for him. I would recommend her to anyone looking for a great therapist." – Belinda