• baby sign language: a set of conventional signs designed to make it easier for older infants and young toddlers to communicate with their caregivers
  • expressive language/communication: the words and phrases a child speaks and/or the specific, mutually-understood signs and gestures she uses to communicate meaning
  • joint attention: a shared focus on an item; an older baby and an adult pay joint attention when they notice where the other is looking or pointing (by one year, babies should be able to point, gesture, or vocalize to get an adult to pay attention to something)
  • parallel play: playing near another child and noticing each other but without interacting
  • receptive language: the words and phrases a child understands
  • social referencing: the process by which young children check with trusting adults to see how to react to new situations and people, including whether new people can be trusted

Expand Language—All the Time

Before watching this video, read the text below. When instructed, watch the segment of video beginning at 0:52 and ending at 3:34.

To start the video in the middle, click the play arrow. Then move your cursor along the progress bar. Click the progress bar when you reach the time you'd like to start.

The more language older babies hear, the more their language will develop. But overhearing doesn’t count—babies don’t learn language by listening to adults talk or by watching TV or videos. When you engage a baby in back-and-forth conversation and connect the conversation to an activity or discovery, you help the baby’s language develop faster and more fully. Play times, feeding and changing times, and passing encounters are opportunities for you to expand babies’ receptive (understood) language and their expressive (spoken or signed) communications.

  • Converse back and forth while playing together. Responsive communication is key for older babies, who are associating words (and signs) with meanings. Give the baby a chance to respond to words—with words, sounds, actions, or imitation.
  • Keep the exchange going. Respond to the baby in ways that acknowledge the baby’s intent—by copying or extending her sounds, putting words to what she might be saying, answering her implied question, or sharing something new.
  • Pay joint attention. During the older infancy period, babies develop the ability to follow a caregiver’s gaze or direct his attention by pointing to, making sounds, or showing what they want. Your joint attention with a baby, or shared focus on an object, helps the baby learn new words because she knows what the word refers to.
  • Pair words with gestures or signs to make meaning clear. Research has found that talking with your hands speeds and supports language development. Older babies and young toddlers develop stronger language when their families and caregivers pair their words with gestures and signs.

In this segment, you’ll see how Maria, Eileen, and a colleague expand older babies’ receptive and expressive language as they converse back and forth during play and feeding times. You’ll see that the educators and babies often use signs to communicate and hear Professor Villegas-Reimer point out the value of teaching baby sign language. Many babies can learn signs before they can say words, and using signs allows babies to communicate and be understood without using words. This can reduce babies’ frustration and speed their verbal language development. To achieve the benefits of using baby sign language, you should use words along with signs and make sure that families and other caregivers understand and reinforce the same signs and gestures.

Now watch the video segment. Begin at 0:52 as baby Rafaela shakes the rattle drums and end at 3:34 as Eileen shows older infants a book. As you watch, look for effective strategies used by the educators in the video and jot down answers to these viewing questions in your Learning Log.

  • What do you notice about how the babies communicate and how the educators expand the babies’ language as they respond to those communications?
  • What do you notice about how the educators use gestures, signs, and other nonverbal cues to focus babies’ attention and help babies understand the meaning of their words?
  • What do you notice about how the educators keep their conversations with babies going through multiple back-and-forth exchanges?


How do educators and babies show each other that they are connected?

  • Here are some of the ways educators and babies convey their connection to each other:
    • Educators smile, pay close attention, reflect the child’s emotions in their words and tone of voice, refer to past shared experience (for example, in the video a child chooses a story for Eileen to tell and she responds, “I knew you were going to pick that one”), and continue the conversation.
    • Babies pay close attention; show things to educators; imitate words and actions; respond when they think a pause is coming; and use words, babbles, signs, and actions to answer questions or continue the conversation.
    • Educators and babies show each other that they are connected by continuing their responsive communication through multiple back-and-forth exchanges.

What benefits do older infants gain from lots of back-and-forth conversation, even when they are not yet using real words?

  • Through back-and-forth conversation, older infants:
    • Strengthen their ongoing relationship with adults who are important in their lives.
    • Learn to take turns in a conversation.
    • Learn to communicate in intentional ways and make themselves understood.
    • Begin to see themselves as important, competent people with “things to say” that others want to hear.
    • Learn words, phrases, and concepts.
    • Learn the meaning of words that they can’t yet say, but will be able to use once they begin to speak.
    • May learn more than one language if given the opportunity.

What benefits do older infants gain from books and stories?

  • Books and stories benefit older infants because they allow older infants to:
    • Look at clear, colorful pictures—something they very much enjoy (especially of other babies).
    • Focus on pictures and associate them with words or sound effects.
    • Learn to handle books and possibly try to turn pages.
    • Learn to associate reading with cuddling and pleasure.
    • Hear full sentences and storybook language such as “Along came the three little pigs” and “In the great green room.”
    • Learn the meaning of words that they are not likely to hear in everyday conversations.
    • Learn to follow a simple story sequence and may begin to learn how to tell a story.
    • Learn to understand that stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.
    • Begin to associate verbal and nonverbal (facial expressions, signs) communications.

What are some effective techniques for supporting and expanding older infants’ language as you help them follow a story?

  • During story time, you can:
    • Let a child choose a favorite book or story for you to read or tell.
    • Ask a child to help you tell a familiar story.
    • Use an enticing, expressive voice and exaggerated facial expressions.
    • Ask a question about a picture, story character, or upcoming event, and pause to give a child time to answer.
    • Use signs, gestures, and sound effects to make word meanings clear and to enhance the story.
    • Engage children in imitating or filling in signs, gestures, sound effects, and any words they may know. Pause to let a child fill in an action, word, or sound effect.
    • Act out parts of the story, putting words to actions.
    • Watch children’s faces to be sure you have their attention, and vary your pace and expression accordingly.
    • Treat older babies as worthy conversation partners. Respond to their signs of interest, spoken and unspoken questions, and participation in the storytelling or reading.


Think about the infants in your own program as you answer these reflection questions in your Learning Log.

  • How do you expand older babies’ language?
  • What did you learn that you will take back to your learning environment and put into practice? ​
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