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A Handy Rule

Updated: Apr 26

Part 2 in our series on Early Language Support Strategies

This series is all about what parents and caregivers can do to support early language development in young children. In our most recent post, we started with OWLing, a passive strategy that allows caregivers to sit back and let children take the lead. Adults observe, wait, and listen to give children space and time to communicate in their way.

This week, we have a new rule of thumb, or rather of hand. Yup, that's right, we have The Hand Rule.

This strategy helps parents and caregivers remember to reduce the amount of questions and increase the amount of comments they use with their littles.

Ready to learn more? Let's go!

Quiz Time

Imagine you are playing a video game. Your friend comes up to you and rapid fire asks you:

  • What is this?

  • What does this character do?

  • Do you like this game?

  • Whoa how did you do that?

  • Are you allowed to do that?

That would probably feel overwhelming, frustrating, and -- let's be honest -- pretty annoying. Your friend is putting so much pressure on you to respond to their questions, and you just want to play a game!

Or imagine you are telling a story and your friend interrupts you to ask:

  • What color was their shirt?

  • How old are they?

  • What are they going to do next?

  • How do you think they're feeling?

You'd probably be wondering if they are even listening to your story.

These examples are the extreme, of course. But it's pretty typical for parents and caregivers to ask questions with our early language learners during play and in conversation because we want to engage with them.

No one likes to feel quizzed while they're just trying to play or relax. And for little ones who struggle with communication, answering questions is HARD!

In fact, asking too many questions can make children feel pressured to speak which can actually reduce their verbal output and lead to frustration.

What can we do instead? The Hand Rule.

Hand Rule

This is a handy strategy to help you reduce questions and increase the number of comments you use with your early language learner.

The rule is simple: use FOUR comments for every ONE question.

(Still wondering why this is called the hand rule -- it's because we have FOUR fingers and ONE thumb!)

There are two parts to this strategy. Let's break it down:


Commenting allows grown-ups to model language for the child without adding pressure for them to respond or imitate. It is a passive strategy that provides a language-rich environment for a child while still allowing them to engage in play or conversation.

There are four major categories of comments:

There are also so many great ways to turn QUESTIONS into COMMENTS:


But wait, questions are actually part of this strategy! What makes a question a good question for the Hand Rule?

Follow the ABCs of questions:

  • Authenticity -- ask questions authentically, meaning that you actually don't know the answer. Ask your child their preferences or their thoughts rather than quizzing them to prove they know something!

  • Balance -- ask questions with comments in between to help balance the language load for our little learners. Questions take more effort to answer and comments provide great language models for them to imitate!

  • Change -- change up the types of questions you use to vary the language load based on your child's language profile. Yes/no questions (do you want ____?) or questions with choices (should we do X or Y?) require less language than open-ended wh-questions (what is it? who is it? where is it?).

Tips & Tricks

On paper, this seems easy. Limit your questions and model more comments. But in practice, it's hard to do! If you are struggling to comment more, you're not alone. Questioning can be a tough habit to break. 

But we can use a few tricks to help us.


If you find yourself asking a question when you meant to comment, don't worry! Just model the answer right away! "What does the cow say?"

Oops, that's a question. Model the answer

"Oh, it says mooo! The cow says mooo!"


I love to encourage caregivers to start with powerful sentence starters like:

  • I see .....

  • I wonder ....

  • Let's ....

These are great ways to get in the habit of commenting during play.

Hand Rule Over the Years

So far, the examples I've given have been for the Hand Rule is with our younger kiddos. While this is a strategy developed for early language learners, we can apply this same strategy in different ways as our children grow up.

As your child gets older, conversations will have more give and take, more questions and answers instead of labeling and self-talk comments. They will also begin asking YOU questions, which keeps the conversation going.

Instead of thinking about reducing questions, think about reducing the question load. Try to avoid asking all open-ended questions that require a lot of explanation or inferencing. Instead, ask some questions with choices or offer "I wonder ..." comments to keep the conversation going.

My two oldest kids love Beauty & the Beast. Here is a transcript of a very real conversation we had about the Beast and Gaston. See how there are lots of questions AND comments throughout.

  • N: He's pretending to be a bad guy.

  • M: He's not pretending he's just making bad choices. Right?

  • N: Yeah. Guess what? There's a bad guy in Beauty and the Beast!

  • M: Who?

  • N: Gaston!

  • M: Gaston!

  • M: Yeah. He's not very nice is he?

  • N: No.

  • N: But fortunately, he's making bad choices.

  • M: Well, UN-fortunately, he's making bad choices. He's kind of a bad guy.

  • M And the Beast, he's a good guy but he keeps making bad choices.

  • N: Yeah ...

As the parent, I used some yes/no questions ("Right?", "Is he?") and a wh-question ("who?") but I used a lot of comments to add to the conversation, recast her utterances, and answer her questions.

The Hand Rule isn't something super special -- it's just a reminder to talk to our earliest language learners the same way we do as our children get older. Mix in those questions and comments to reduce language pressure and increase their engagement in play and conversation!

Now, Go Try It!

Have more questions? We would love to help -- email us at or come chat over on our Instagram page @talktimeboston


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