Talk Less, Talk Smart

I’ve already asked you to think about being quiet and we are going to continue that thread here. Although we need to talk to our children to allow them to HEAR language, we are going to focus on what we say very carefully so that it is salient and meaningful. To children, adult chatter can sound like a whole lot of NOTHING.  Remember the adults in Charlie Brown? When we talk a lot and say too much, we end up saying nothing at all.

But what SHOULD I say?

First, let’s laugh at an example that none of us would EVER do! Let’s say someone ELSE picked the page for “milk” for her son who is not yet saying any words.  Milk is her son’s favorite and she knows she can work on it throughout his day. So far she’s picked a great page. Good for her! Now, let’s see how she does putting marks on that page.

Yesterday, when she went to start putting marks on the page, she said something like this, “Oh, you’re ready for some milk now? I know. You love your milk. Ok, wait a second and mommy will go get it. I have to find your cup. Here it is. Let’s go to the fridge and fill it up. There you go. Isn’t that yummy?”.

Hmm. Let’s think. How’d she do?

You probably noticed she actually only said the word “milk” two times in almost 50 words. You can imagine how “milk” would get lost in of all that chatter. It turns out that she put different marks on a whole bunch of different pages instead of many marks on the page for “milk.” In this interaction no pages got filled, especially not “milk”, and her child probably ignored most of what she said.

But, we would never do that. At least not today, because today we will get focused.  We will say less, but end up really saying more because what we say will be meaningful. To do that we are going to zoom in to our child’s Zone of Proximal Development.

What’s the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)?

This is it…


It may have a big fancy name, but it’s actually very simple. The green circle is what your child can do or say on their own. The purple circle around it is what they are able to do or say with just a little help.  In language, the part of the purple circle comes in the form of a great parent model – a parent who knows just what to say to help their child be able to say a little more himself.

The woman talking about “milk” in 49 words other than “milk”, was not being a great model according to ZPD.  She was all the way out in the white space, outside of the circles, talking to herself.

But if YOU can stay in the purple circle, and you can stay just one level above what your child can naturally do on his own, your child is going to be able to join you more easily and expand the inside circle to do more each day. In the purple circle you are in the zone and being a great language model.

But how do I know what is the ZPD for MY child?

Well you tell me. What can your child do on her own? That helps you determine how you should be talking to her and how you can stay in the ZPD.

If your child is not yet using words on her own, you should only be using one-word sentences to talk to her. If your child is using single words, you should be using two-word sentences to talk to her.

It doesn’t mean that your child can’t UNDERSTAND longer sentences.  Instead, it means that you are focusing your efforts, putting more marks on fewer pages, and filling those pages so your child can SAY more. It also doesn’t mean that you’re never going to use longer sentences, it just means that when you get focused on what you’re saying during your interactions with your child they are probably going to be more meaningful interactions. Those more meaningful interactions will then help your child fill pages more quickly.


If you want your child to say more, talk less and talk smart. Make what you say more meaningful by staying in your child’s ZPD and filling up the pages you’ve chosen more quickly.

Can you think of how that example with the “milk” could play out better, including the ideas of talking less, talking smart, and ZPD? How could that mom be a great language model for her child? Thinking about the ZPD, what’s your child’s green circle? What should you be saying to stay in the purple circle?

If you’re ready to get some more great ideas on sharing meaningful interactions and providing real learning opportunities, our series on The Magic of Waiting is a great next stop.

  1. Laura says:

    Wow. I am the ‘milk mom’ from your example! So happy to have read this post– now I can start talking less, but saying more while teaching words to my 20 month old, Ellie. Since I’m home with her all the time, Ellie’s my little buddy and constant companion. I see now that I’d fallen into the habit of essentially narrating everything and just chattering on and on, without FOCUSING and truly teaching words in a way that her mind can grasp them. Thanks, Kim! I’m all about ‘quality over quantity’ these days. (Not to mention a bit more adult conversation/interaction too!)

  2. Kim says:

    Laura, please keep me posted how things go over the next week or so. I’d love to hear what pages you’ve picked and how they progress.

  3. Amelia says:

    If you are trying to teach the word “milk”, does it help to say other words like mommy, more, mine, ect. So that your child can see your mouth making the “m” sound?

    • Kim says:

      Hi, Amelia. You think like an SLP! I like it!

      When you are starting out (if you’re starting out) filling pages, it’s more important when picking pages to focus on what’s meaningful and motivating, rather than picking based on the initial sound. See my “Good Pages, Bad Pages” post under Getting Started.

      I know you are thinking about that “m” sound, which I like, but if you are spending time saying things like “mine” you are putting marks on pages which may not be a priority.

      Instead, it’s more important to make sure your child is having a real and meaningful interaction with you and can see your face when you’re saying “milk” (so you can’t have it in the refrigerator taking out the milk carton). Through repetition, or many marks on that page, your child will learn that it begins with that “m” sound.

      One final note is that when our children do begin to say these words they are approximations of the adult words. “Milk” may sound a lot more like “meh”.

  4. amber says:

    Oh Wow I think I am also a milk mom.

  5. Hajer says:

    Wow! I love this post, and yes, I am a “milk mom”. I have a 23 month old, and while she says over 60 words, I tend to “chat” with her more and more. I will try this method on some new words and see how it goes :)

    By the way, I just came across your lovely website today! Def. going to add it to my favorites!

    • Kim says:

      Hajer- Thank you so much! I can’t wait to hear how it goes. It’s an adjustment but will allow you to connect so much more. Please keep me posted.

  6. Heather says:

    Hi Kim,

    I came across your website about a week ago, I loved the basic idea and have been meaning to put aside some time to sit and have a proper read through…which I’ve just done and I love love LOVE the whole theory.

    I currently look after 2 young boys and spend most of my day in 1 and 2 word sentences which can sometimes be quite mind numbing for us, but it’s so important we continually look at the world through the eyes of the little one sat in front of us.

    • Kim says:


      I’m so happy you’ve enjoyed my posts. Sounds like you are a wonderful caregiver, who is thoughtful about her interactions with children. Welcome to Little Stories and I can’t wait to chat with you more.