The Powerful Play of “Taking Turns” in Speech Language Therapy

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I am always looking for strategies to help my clients with their speech therapy goals.  One resource I find really helpful is the Hanen Centre, a Canadian charitable organization that works globally to support parents, caregivers educators and SLPs.  One really important technique to help children learn language is the “back and forth” play or the “taking turns” strategy.

Having a back-and-forth conversation with a child may seem like a small thing, but it has a big impact on their language skills. The Hanen Centre recently shared a new study that shows that “the more children participate in back-and-forth interactions with their caregivers, the more activity they have in the part of the brain responsible for language production and processing. There is also a strong connection between the number of turns children take in conversation and the scores they receive on standardized language tests.” Wow. Those are incredible results!

Feel inspired? Here are some helpful tips from the Hanen Centre on how to get started…

When and where to do it:

Anytime and anywhere! The best thing about high quality interactions is that they’re most likely to happen during everyday situations like having a bath, walking to the park, or getting ready for bed.

How to do it:

  • OWL™ (Observe, wait and Listen™) 
    • Observe – Get face-to-face with your child and don’t say anything. Just pay close attention to what he’s interested in. His eye gaze, gestures, facial expressions and sounds are important clues.
    • Wait – Without speaking, wait to give your child a chance to send you a message. Remember that he doesn’t need to use words – he might just give you a quick look or make a gesture. Pay close attention or you might miss it.
    • Listen – Your child may also send a message with words or sounds. Treat any sound, look or gesture as your child’s first “turn” in the interaction.
  • Follow Your Child’s Lead – Now that your child has taken the first turn, respond immediately by saying or doing something that’s directly related to what he just communicated. For example, if he stacks a few blocks on top of each other and then looks at you and smiles, you could say, “Wow, you’re building a tower!” Then wait quietly again. If your child takes another turn on the same topic, take another turn as well.

I recommend that you try this interaction during your regular routine with your child. There is no need to add in a special activity – try and make ‘taking turns’ part of how you communicate with your child every day.  You can print off the OWL tool and put it on your fridge and give copies to your child’s caregivers. This will help remind family members and others to use these strategies so you can work as a team to increase your child’s capacity for communication and self-expression.

For more information on how to address speech and language challenges that your child is experiencing, please contact me at the Centre for a free 20 minute phone consultation.

Marie-Elise, MM Speech Language Pathologist


References (Provided by the Hanen Centre website):

  1. Pryor, J. (Feb. 14, 2018). Beyond the 30 Million Word Gap: Back-and-forth exchanges boost children’s brain response to language. Retrieved on April 7, 2018 from:
  2. Romeo, R.R., Leonard, J.A., Robinson, S.T., West, M.R., Mackey, A.P., Rowe, M.L. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2018). Beyond the 30-Million-Word Gap: Children’s Conversational Exposure Is Associated With Language-Related Brain Function. Psychological Science.

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