Why Pausing Works: An Early Communication Tool


Transcript of this week's "Developmental Thought," a short excerpt from the full episode. For additional information, music, play ideas and the complete interactive family experience, please listen to the entire episode.

Today, I want to talk about why pausing with your young child is one of my single most powerful tools in parenting and in my role as a pediatric speech-language pathologist. There are many reasons why pausing during any conversation can be useful… first, we pause to highlight grammatical structures - to mark the end of a sentence, or a shift to a new idea. We pause for social reasons – to build anticipation, to clarify that we have expectations, or to emphasize a point we’re trying to make.

Pausing is also a useful strategy for us as parents and caregivers to allow our young children to process what we’ve said. We know that infants and toddlers are often processing multiple pieces of information (what they hear, what they see, what they’re touching, the way their bodies feel in motion) simultaneously – it’s no wonder that it often takes our little ones more time to attend to what we’ve said or asked of them.

And finally, using a pause as a strategy to entice your little one to communicate can be very useful. Think about phrases that you use all the time – we all use them – those you just automatically know the way to finish them. For grown-ups, these are often successful advertising slogans like, “Just do ___”, or familiar idioms “When it rains, it ___.” These are unmistakably obvious to the majority of us, because we’ve heard them over and over again – they’re simply phrases that our brains automatically fill in. Our brains automatically do this when we’re listening to familiar songs, as well – either with the melody and rhythm or with the words. For our children, these are the phrases we use day in, day out. When we pause expectantly before saying part of the phrase, we’re using a particular strategy – and the technical term for this is called using a “cloze procedure.” You may already be doing this without thinking about it, either in daily caregiving routines like washing, dressing, etc., or in musical activities when singing familiar songs or nursery rhymes. 

“When we pause expectantly before saying part of the phrase, we’re using a particular strategy – and the technical term for this is called using a ‘cloze procedure.’”

Now, there are lots of ways to incorporate pausing and the cloze procedure strategy in our lives with our little ones. Think of all the things you already say each day or each time you complete a caregiving routine. We’ve spoken in the past, in my episode Routines and Rituals about the idea that caregiving routines are not only opportunities for repetition, allowing your child to anticipate what’s coming next, but they are also opportunities to introduce the idea of ritual to an infant or toddler. Even if this is simply something you say each time in a silly voice, or a song you sing on your way to the bathtub, or a favorite book or poem… these moments become special bonding and interaction time, as well as predictable opportunities that offer comfort and security.

Take an inventory of the types of rituals you might already be doing (sometimes you have to ask your partner or really pay attention to these moments, as you may be largely unaware that you’re even doing them!) and think about other simple little ways to add little phrases to your daily care routines. For instance, when you sit down to set up meal-time, you might say, “Ok, what do we need? A bib and a plate!” If you start saying this at every meal-time, your little one may surprise you by pointing to the objects he sees in his vicinity before you even say your phrase, or may respond when you pause – “What do we need? A bib and a ___” by gesturing, vocalizing, or verbalizing. Whatever he does, you can say, “That’s right! A plate!” making sure to provide a verbal model or reinforce the adult pronunciation, and validating his response, at whatever level he was able to give it to you.

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Book-reading activities are also wonderful opportunities to utilize a pause. I’m particularly in favor of using books with repetitive phrases (I have a whole collection of them on a Pinterest board, as these naturally lend themselves to use of the cloze procedure, if we leave out the final word or other familiar words in the repetitive line, pausing to wait for either a gesture or sign, or the word, before stating or modeling it ourselves.

I might simply use the same phrase when I get into the car and put on my little one’s seat belt (something like, “arm in, arm in, ____ click!”), or when we are heading down the slide (counting “one, two, ___ three!” or “ready, set, ___ go!”)… and here’s another reason why talking to our little ones is so important – even from infancy! Everything we say becomes part of their world, whether we’re just bathing them in language, or whether we’re using particular ritual-like language to help them identify patterns and transitions. When we shift the focus slightly and use strategies like pausing, we’re not only giving them opportunities to respond, but also giving them something different to attend to, or to anticipate. This is part of language play. And you know I always encourage you to play with your little one. 

Please see below for a link to my YouTube video, which I reference in this week's episode, and model one of the songs/rhymes we sang. Don't forget to subscribe to the Strength In Words YouTube channel!

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Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP

Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist specializing in work with pre-verbal infants, toddlers, non-verbal children, and their families. The Strength In Words podcast and blog were created as an additional resource for families of young children with infants & toddlers of all developmental levels. It is not intended to be a substitute for speech and language therapy.