5 Concepts to Teach your Late-Talker (instead of the alphabet or colours)- Part II

Getting a child who is late in talking to start talking can feel like an exercise in futility, but this is only because most parents do not actually focus on the ‘right’ concepts to teach.

And yes, there is such a thing as ‘right’ and ‘not-so-right’ things to teach your late-talker.

Most of the children I encounter at my clinic, who are delayed (see this post to find out the expected vocabulary for different ages; it may surprise you) tend to be/have been overexposed to screens (there are definitely exceptions here), and as a result they would probably have been exposed to ‘academic-type’ content such as the alphabet, etc.

Teaching a child who is delayed in talking the alphabet, colours, counting, shapes, etc. can seem like a sound idea particularly because many children whose language skills are delayed tend to show an affinity for these very concepts, because it is what most of them would have encountered on their screens. 

Most ‘education-type’ screen content…you know…the TV shows a lot of parents imagine are better for their child to watch…tend to have a lot of these ‘academic’ material. 

So, if teaching the alphabet and numbers isn’t the best way of expanding your child’s language skills, what then should you teach your late-talker?

Well, the list is actually endless…believe me. Check out part I for 3 types of activities you can get started on, and read on for some more ideas, including 1 of my absolute best activities for growing any child’s language skills.

5 Concepts to Teach your Late-Talker (instead of the alphabet or colours)- Part II

c. Semantic Categories

Semantic categorisation is like the holy grail of vocabulary-building, If you would like to rapidly grow your child’s language skills, this is where to start

What are Semantic Categories?

Semantic categories are classes that words/items belong to. Knowledge of semantic categories is absolutely crucial for children for various reasons;

  • It teaches a variety of words
  • It helps children order the words they know more systematically for them to be able to use the words more robustly (to understand, to describe, to explain, etc.)


If you imagine the brain is like a library, and the words one knows are like books…

Semantic categorisation is the system by which you order your books (words) in thelibrary (brain) for faster retrieval needed to understand (comprehension) what is saidand needed to formulate what to say (expression).

Surprisingly, most children, and more specifically children with delayed language skills, have weak or underdeveloped semantic categorisation skills. They may be able to label (state the names) various nouns eg. cup, monkey, spoon, etc., but if you were to ask them to describe what they have labelled, name similar items as the one labelled or describe the item, most children would find it difficult!

There are many ways of using semantic categories to grow a child’s language;

  • You can use the activity to target ‘understanding’ (receptive language skills)
  • You can use the activity to target ‘categorisation’ (sorting)
  • You can use the activity to target ‘labelling’ (vocabulary) skills
  • You can use the activity to target expressive language skills

Using these activities to improve your child’s understanding is the easiest and best way of targeting your child’s language skills. 

Focusing on improving your child’s understanding is the best way of targeting their expressive language skills (talking). What most parents don’t realise is that before a child can talk, they must first understand. Therefore, improving their understanding is a crucial link to them improving their talking! 

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To target understanding, use this activity in a way that doesn’t require that the child talks. For example, sorting/categorisation requires that the child places like flash cards together, as such, no talking is involved. Sorting/categorisation is therefore a task that emphasises understanding (following instructions), although it does also require thinking.

Another task that targets understanding is asking your child to point/give you a specific item. This task requires that a child is able to identify the named item and that they are able to execute the instruction as per the directive, ie. if you ask them to point, they should point; ‘give’ they should give the item to you, etc.

To target expressive language skills (talking), semantic categories activities are some of the most versatile activities to practise expressive language skills of varying complexities.

Labelling: Use this activity to practise labelling (naming) single words. This activity offers parents a great opportunity to practise words belonging to different categories, such as animals, food, clothing, transport, etc. This will grow a child’s vocabulary although it only grows their ability to label (nouns).

Describing: I love using this activity to help a child practise formulating descriptions for various nouns. When you ask most children to describe items, very few can manage to say more than the label. This activity can be used to teach the foundations of describing. You do this by teaching describing through features. You can model anywhere from 1-feature to multiple features’ descriptions. Children learn that there is a hierarchy to how items are described for the descriptions to be logical. When describing, you should start with the top most feature, in this case, the semantic category umbrella name eg. sock- clothing; car- transportation; horse- farm animal, etc. You can also teach various features: semantic category name, function (what the item is used for), what it is made out of, what it looks like, any associated sounds (eg. cow- moo) or specific characteristics of the item.

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This is how I would teach various features’ descriptions for ‘cow’

1- feature

A cow is a farm animal

2- features

A cow is a farm animal

It gives us milk

3- features

A cow is a farm animal

It gives us milk

It eats grass

This can be practised through playful games in order to make it more interesting for the child. For example, you could play a ‘guess what I am describing’ game and have a rule that whoever is describing should only state the features, but not the actual item name so that the person listening can ‘guess’ what is being described.

Comparing and Contrasting: This activity provides a great way for introducing children to the structure of how to compare and contrast two or more items. Children can practise this skill using known items from 1 semantic group. For example, if a child is able to label ‘farm animals’, you could practise comparing 2 farm animals, and model the sentence structure for how to compare; “a cow and a sheep are BOTH farm animals.” And with contrasting, the sentence could be as basic as, “a cow is a farm animal, but a monkey is a wild animal,” or as complex as “cows eat grass while monkeys eat bananas.”

Semantic categorisation activities are truly some of the most versatile and effective language-building activities out there! These activities can provide parents (and therapists) with countless possibilities!

Discover this for yourself!

d. Which Go Together

‘Which Go Together’ is an activity that children at various stages of their language development can participate in, and build language from. It can be used with children who are nonverbal as well as those who are verbal.

‘Which Go Together’ is an example of an activity that targets ‘semantic-pragmatic associations’ skills, and one that targets both reasoning and expressive language skills.

Semantics refers to the meaning of words (vocabulary) whereas pragmatics refers to the social use of language (context). Both are components of language, which are equally important to target during any language-building efforts. The other two components of language are syntax (grammar) and phonology (pronounciation). This activity helps children practise matching related items together and learn the relationship that items have with each other. It also helps children improve their cognitive as well as attention skills.

Semantics: This activity can be used to directly target vocabulary. To do so, target the names of the items in the associations you target. Targeting the function of the items is also a good way to increase your child’s vocabulary.

Pragmatics: This activity provides a child with an opportunity to see associations between items. For example, in order for a child to correctly match an umbrella with rain/ gumboots, a child must either understand the function of an umbrella or gumboots.

Late-Talker's Bootcamp 1.0/2.0

Use this activity to improve cognitive skills in young children, particularly non-verbal children.

– This activity is also great for increasing attention skills

– Identify the easier to match pairs and offer the child 1 set of each pairing and place the other among other cards, for them to find and match to the set of the pair given.

– Eg. you could give the child the picture of ‘rain’ and place the picture of umbrella and 3 other pictures on the table for the child to choose which one goes with ‘rain’).

– You can make this task more complex by offering the child more flash cards to choose from in order to match

– You could also make up a laminated board with slots for 6 pictures/flash cards, and place 3 pictures on one side and have the child match the 3 with pictures they place on the opposite side to where you placed the first 3 pictures (velcro would be suitable for this)

– Always reinforce the vocabulary during matching!

There you go! I hope these activities give you some solid ideas of how you can grow your late-talker’s language skills, and ditch just teaching the alphabet.

I wish you and your little one a fun-filled learning experience. Do comment to let me know how it is all going.

Always rooting for you and your child’s success.

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Wishing you the best with instilling the joys of learning to your child.

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Hi, I'm your teacher

Lorna Muthamia-Ochido

I run a family-centred speech-language therapy clinic, the largest in East and Central Africa. I’ve helped 15,000+ children optimise their communication outcomes (in other words, I make children smarter ☺).

Get your child talking in no time.

Access Module 1 of the Late- Talker’s Bootcamp course and get started with growing your own child’s language skills completely FREE!


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