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Find Your Inner OWL

Part 1 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. So, when you think about getting your toddler to use language, what strategies come to mind?

Take a moment and come up with a few. I'll wait...

Okay, if one or more of those strategies involved you not talking at all, give yourself a pat on the back! That's what this first blog post is all about.

The irony is, when we want our kiddos to talk more, we often end up doing all the talking. We draw their attention to interesting objects, model words, show them toys, explain how things work, and ask them to repeat words and sounds after us. These can be great strategies, and there is a place for all of them. But, sometimes, it's even better to do the exact opposite.


Yes. I'm talking about OWLing.

Enter the OWL

Initially established by the Hanen Centre, OWLing is an acronym that outlines three of the most important things you can do when fostering early language development:

Observe Wait Listen OWL

This passive strategy allows us to sit back and let our children take the lead. You might be surprised at how much your child is communicating, whether with words or not, when you sit in silence and embrace your inner OWL.

Let's break it down.


There is so much that we want to show and teach our children. Look, it's a blueberry, yum yum! Check out this new ball ramp that Auntie Jess bought you. That's you in the mirror! Say hi!

We are constantly drawing our children's attention to the world around them, doing our best to share our interests and teach them all that we can. This can be great. But there's also power in stopping to notice what they are interested in.

Tune into your child's nonverbal language. Whether they're talking or not, this can tell you a lot about what they're interested in. Notice what they're looking at. Where their body is leaning or pointing. These cues can help tell you what is on your child's mind.

When you talk about what they are already focused on, children are more likely to learn and retain language.

Consider this: You get your one-year-old a super awesome brand new board book and sit down to read. It has all the fixings: flaps, textures, even a mirror at the back. You're making voices, using sound effects, modeling new words -- you're basically Ms. Rachel. But your child isn't looking at you. You take a minute to observe what your child is looking at -- and it turns out there's light glinting off a shiny soda can nearby. You put aside the book, hoping you'll get to show it off another time, and follow your child's lead. "Look, light." You point to the soda can. "It's so bright!" Now your child is listening.


Children are used to listening to adults. When we quiet down and look at them, we are giving them a chance to do the talking.

This is even more powerful when we lean forward and look at them expectantly. This is sending the message that we are interested in what they have to say. Plus -- If a child is young or has a language delay, they may need extra time to formulate and express their message. They may need us to wait.

There are lots of different times where we can put waiting into practice. We can do this after we've said something to show that we're waiting for a response. We can also do this during play. Rather than taking the lead ourselves, we could silently wait for the child to speak first.

If this ever feels hard -- which it almost certainly will -- try counting to 10 in your head before speaking again. Honestly, there've been times when I've done this and by 5 I was sure that the child wouldn't speak. But at 7, they say something I never expected. Silence is power!

Consider this: You have some free time after lunch on a Saturday, so you sit down in the play area with your three-year-old. They move to the pretend kitchen setup. You start to pull out ingredients and model how to cook pasta, describing the steps all the while (after all, you are the expert here): "First, let's fill the pot with water. Now let's turn on the stove. Look, it's boiling! Time to put in the noodles. Mix it up." After a few minutes, you notice your child isn't talking too much. You decide to stop "cooking" and to look at them, smiling pleasantly and waiting. At first your child is quiet, looking down. Then, they jump up: "Beep, beep! It's done!" Your child might have been happy to let you lead the play activity, but now they've had a chance to collaborate. You happily pretend-eat the pasta, until your confident talker pretend-finds-a-bug in their noodles. Yuck!


In order to develop self-confidence in their message, children need to feel heard. Which means it's very important for us to listen.

Sometimes, this isn't possible. Sometimes, we need to prioritize getting through the day (getting to an appointment on time, cooking dinner, escaping CVS without buying another toy car). But when we have the time and space to do so, it's important that we really pay attention to what our children are telling us. Especially when we don't understand.

Children aren't the clearest communicators. Sometimes their speech is hard to understand. Sometimes they can't think of the right words. In these cases, listening lets us to decipher their message. But there is a caveat: Once you've figured out what they're saying, don't interrupt! Keep listening. Yes, this means that even if you know your 4-year-old is about to tattle on their little sister for the umpteenth time that day, and they start out by saying, "Um, um, um, um," as they work on formulating their message, you need to quietly look at them and wait for them to finish.

Other times you might listen, but it's still hard to understand what your child is trying to say. In these cases, calmly repeat your child's words back to them to show them that you're trying to understand. See if this helps them elaborate. You can also encourage them to show you what they're talking about.

Even if you aren't able to decipher the message, you are actively listening and this shows your child that their voice is valuable.

Consider this: You're outside with your 2-year-old. They are just starting to put words together, and sometimes it's tricky to understand what they're saying -- especially if it's a new word for them. You roll a ball to your child and model the word, "ball." Your child replies, "deedee." You start to correct them ("no, ball") but then you stop to listen and realize that "deedee" might mean something different. You repeat back, "deedee." Your child nods, pointing at the ball, "deedee!" On closer inspection, you find that there is indeed a picture of a kitty on the ball. You say, "That's right, it's a kitty." Your child feels heard.

Defining Child-Led

If you've been on Instagram keeping up with recommended language development tips and tricks, you've probably seen the term child-led a few times. This sounds nice... but what does it really mean?

Family language listening

First off, let's rule out what it's not. Child-led is not letting your child run wild! I mean, can you imagine if children actually "led" the world? We would have gummy worms for breakfast. We would spend our savings on remote-controlled cars and unicorn plushies. We would miss nap time and burn out before dinner!

Children need adults to provide structure -- but, within that structure, adults can determine when to give children the reins in order to best support language development.

So what does this look like?

Well, it might look like OWLing.

At different times during your daily routine, try observing what your child is interested in. They might be strapped into the high chair, but they are leading the interaction and you are following. Rather than doing all the talking and directing, wait for your child to speak first. If your child doesn't use words yet, this might look like pointing, gesturing, looking at you with a smile, tapping their hands on the table, all of the above. Observe what type of communication they are using, even if it's not words, then listen to what they're saying before you respond.

The O, W, and L combined can let your child know that, although they can't make big decisions like going to Lego Land every day, their thoughts and feelings are valuable and deserve the spotlight every once in a while. This can foster motivation to communicate and a healthy self-image. It also gives children time and space to communicate when it might be hard for them.

Not to mention, children are more likely to learn if the topic is something they're interested in -- aren't we all? -- so it's worth it for us to do a little extra work to help our lessons pack the biggest punch.

To OWL or not to OWL

A quick note that OWLing might not always be the best strategy for what you need in the moment. This might be because you are in survival mode as you get the kids ready to leave for their grandparents, or a million other totally valid reasons. Parenting is hard and we can't stop to OWL all the time.

At other times, you might be in a calm environment where you could OWL, but you choose to use other strategies instead. Or, even better -- perhaps you start with OWLing and then build on that with other strategies. OWLing doesn't mean you have to be totally silent!

After OWLing, you might use some language models.

You might scaffold your child's use of language through providing choices.

Or maybe you set up some communication temptations to give your child the push they need.

Remember that OWLing is just one of many different language support strategies that you'll learn about in this series -- it is but one tool in your tool belt. But OWLing is a great foundation to build on -- and it can be combined with other strategies, too!

OWLing Over the Years

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

We can be OWLs with our older kiddos, too!


  • Observing what your ten year old's favorite hobbies are. Ask about them. Build fun activities and work on the hobbies together.

  • Waiting to let your excited six year old get their whole thought out, rather than interrupting to finish their sentence. This is especially important if that six year old has a communication difference, such as word finding difficulty or stuttering.

  • Listening to your teen complain about that annoying boy in school. Or maybe hear out their argument about why they shouldn't have to clean their room every week (even if you're not going to change your mind!). Validate. Respond. Bond!

Now, Go Try It!

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


Weitzman, E. (2017) It Takes Two to Talk. Hanen Centre.

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