The use of total communication to build speech language skills

Parents from all cultures eagerly await their child’s first words. In the first three years of life children move from coo’s and cries, the earliest forms of communication to combining phrases and sentences to express their wants and needs and retell stories. It’s pretty amazing and we live in a society that celebrates and values verbal communication.


What happens when our children struggle with verbal communication?

Parents of infants, toddlers and children who are experiencing delays with their development may struggle with verbal communication. There is help. It is important to look beyond verbal words and embrace a total communication approach. Total communication includes a combination of the use of sign, gestures, pictures, verbal output, and technology to pass along a message to a communication partner. The earlier one starts to use some or all of these methods of communication, the greater the potential for improving a child’s communication skills.


“If they get what they want without using words, they will never learn to talk.”

As Speech Language Pathologists, we hear this a lot. Fortunately it is not true. It is the exact opposite and many well designed, government funded research articles have proven this time and time again. Just as babies learn to crawl before they walk, using a total communication approach (gestures, signs, pictures, voice output devices) can give children a developmentally appropriate way to communicate before they are able to talk. And some children just talk later so why not support what communication skills they do have? Once children learn to walk, they no longer crawl. Communication is the same and using total communication can help bridge this gap and build on the skills they do have.


Why use a total communication approach?

  • Helps decrease frustration; Does your child get upset or have a tantrum when they want something and cannot tell you? The early use of a total communication approach and/or Augmentative Alternative Communication allows children to communicate their wants and needs to the most important people in their lives: YOU!
  •  Builds Vocabulary; Rather than just pointing to something the use of signs and pictures and/or a voice output device teaches children how to use symbols and signs for objects. It also attaches words to meaning and creates positive communication opportunities. For instance, if your child gives you a picture of banana and you say “banana” and they get a banana they are going to attribute meaning to this. Note, attaching the verbal word “banana” to the picture  / sign is as important as giving them the item itself. They need to hear and see you say the words so they can start to attach meaning to it beyond the physical item.
  • Improves Social Skills; Successful communication with peers, family members and early education teachers creates a sense of belonging. It allows your child the opportunity to use language for many social functions such as turn taking, sharing information, commenting and requesting.
  •  Increases Early Literacy Skills; More exposure and interaction with songs, nursery rhymes, books, visuals, etc may encourage and support your child with their pre-literacy and reading skills later in life.
  • Supports Motor Development; When using signs and gestures, children practice coordination of hand and body movements. This not only supports motor coordination but helps simulate speech production.
  • Increase in speech and length of sentences; Total communication may help children transition to using longer phrases and sentences. For example, instead of saying (“Ball”) you may ask the child to imitate two or more words through signs or voice output (“Ball, please!”)

How to use Total Communication in everyday life

Every time a child has a successful experience with communication whether it is sign, a picture or verbal communication, changes occur in the brain to support language development. The neural connections upon which talking depends develops alongside a child’s experience with language.


There are several ways to incorporate total communication strategies into everyday life;

  • Incorporating gestures and signs into a song like “The Wheels on the Bus” your child to take a turn and actively participate in the interaction.
  • People games like “Row, row, row your boat” allow infants and toddlers to move their body back and forth to request continuation of the song.
  • Using real pictures of objects/activities can make requesting easier and reduce frustration.
  • Incorporating a picture schedule of a familiar routine (bathing, snack time) encourages independence.
  • Using a sign/gesture for the word “blow” can keep an interaction like bubbles going.
  • Create opportunities to talk. For instance, you can keep toys and snacks out of reach. When a child shows interest, model a sign and while also using the word. Remember to provide a delay so they have time to copy or gesture back.


Who may benefit from using total communication?

Excellent Resources;

1. Speech Langauge & Audiology Cananda – Milestones

2. Hanen – The Imporatnce of Gestures

3. Little Hands & Me Parenting Network Saskatoon- Baby Sign Classes

4. Picture Exchange Communication System Canada

To learn more about our programs or speak directly to one of our experienced Speech Language Pathologist, please call 306 933 3222 or email

We look forward to connecting with you,

The Speech Language Network Team