Tips for maximizing screen time with your speech and language learner
Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 10:37PM
Speech Tree

Today's ever-expanding world of technology has introduced us to many amazing learning tools. From computers to smart phones, iPads, and tablets, there is a wide variety of screens for children to play with and learn from. As parents, it is important to reflect upon both what children are learning from screens as well as what they are missing out on. When children are occupying themselves with screens, they are often not engaging in communicative interactions or pretend play, 2 key components of language learning. How can you, as a parent, use technology while still incorporating social interaction and imagination to carryover speech and language goals?

Time it Right

 The AAP recommends that children and teens should limit screen time to one or two hours daily of content that is rich in quality. Times that children are able to access screens should be controlled and try to limit the locations that children have access to the screens (e.g., not in bedroom or during dinner). Additionally, the AAP recommends that parents should avoid exposing infants and children under age 2 to television and other entertainment media (AAP, Council on Communications and Media, 2010). For healthy brain growth, it is vital that infants and toddlers engage in direct interactions with parent and caregivers (AAP, n.d.). This is a critical period for learning language, social-emotional, problem solving, and motor skills.

Get Appy

Not all apps are created equal. you want to make sure that the apps you are selecting have educational value and will teach concepts or elicit communication. Cynthia Chiong, an educational researcher for A Matter of App, Yogiplay, Common Sense Media, and formerly, Apple, has created a thorough rubric for evaluating apps. 

1. Apps need to be developmentally appropriate for your child's age and teach concepts that are pertinent to what they are learning at home or school. One would also assess the motor skills necessary to manipulate the screen.

2. Apps should be balanced with engaging content that is not too distracting.

3. Apps should be motivating enough to prevent boredom and keep a child from coming back for more. Repeated exposure to material leads to learning.

4. Parental involvement is key. Although many apps do not have explicit opportunities for parental involvement, it is important to evaluate apps based on the potential for parental involvement to teach skills. 

Facilitate the Experience

While there are many educational apps on the market, it is not enough to site your child down with a device and expect maximum learning to occur. Adult participation is essential in helping children learn the concepts and skills conveyed in an app. No matter what app your child is using, there are many ways to facilitate speech and language learning at every level. Use enthusiasm and affect to engage your child while using the app as a tool for teaching. The following are just a few ways you can facilitate this process. It is very important to prepare your child with your expectations of the upcoming screen time to avoid negative behaviors (e.g., "Joey, let's have some fun and play the train app. We are going to take turns together.")

Turn Taking: With any simple game, take turns with your child. They take a turn and then you take a turn. You can even involve siblings. This helps to build the foundation for interpersonal communication. You can even use this strategy with your older child who is addicted to Angry Birds or other video games! It's an excellent strategy for teaching self-regulation, patience, perspective taking, and flexible thinking.

Choice Making and Requesting: This can be done with apps such as Toca Boca apps and Cookie Doodle. Elicit choices between materials such as, "Should we feed the girl a carrot or broccoli?" or "Do you want chocolate or peanut butter cookies?" You can also give choices about which character they would like to use when playing games. Have your child make requests such as, "Open the barn door" or "I want the blue frosting." At a very basic level, you could use a bubble app to have your child request "bubbles" before they get to pop them on the screen.

Labeling and Categorization: Ask  questions to elicit labeling of nouns and verbs during play. You can do this with virtually any app. For example, you can use Peek-a-boo Barn to label animal names or Toca Boca Kitchen to label foods. this strategy facilitates categorization of vocabulary. You can create additional opportunities to categorize by challenging your child to name all of the 'big' or 'small' animals to form more specific categories. Additionally, ask questions related to action words. Encourage them to form full sentences such as "I am cutting the carrot."

Description: Elicit descriptive language by playing guessing games. The Bag Game is perfect for this, however, you can use many apps to encourage this kind of language. While playing with the Toca Boca Kitchen, you might encourage your child to describe the food they want to feed the character, such as "A vegetable that is long, orange and crunchy." Model descriptive vocabulary including color, size, shape, amount, texture, taste, and sound words. Encourage your child to describe the pictures they see and include details (e.g., who, what, actions, where, when, why).

Answering and Asking Questions: Ask a variety of basic "what, where, who, and when" questions or encourage higher level thinking and reasoning with "how" and "why" questions. The Bag Game is a great app to encourage your child to ask questions to gain information about what you have hidden in the bag (e.g., "Is it a fruit?" "Where do you see it?").

Following Directions and Language Organization: Take turns giving directions. Give single or multi-step directions to your child such as, "Get the apple" or "Cut the broccoli and put it in the pot." When it is your child's turn, give them feedback about the quality of their directions when they miss the mark. This will help establish skills in the areas of word retrieval, sequencing, and organization.

Articulation: Consult with your SLP about the specific sounds that your child needs to target for the week. Choose apps that would target your child's sounds. For example, a child working on the /k/ sound would get lots of practice while playing with the Toca Boca Hair Salon (e.g., cut, comb, color, curl). You can branch from using single words to short phrases, sentences and conversation depending on the level of your child. Give them feedback about the accuracy of their performance.

Tie to Real Life Experiences: Encourage your child to think critically  or "tie" these apps to real life. For example, upon seeing that a character dislikes a food in the Toca Boca Kitchen, you could ask your child if they like or dislike that food. Further the activity by making a food in your own kitchen to create a hands on experience. If you use a video modeling app such as Social Skill Builder, talk about real life social experiences your child has had that are similar to those portrayed. For the youngest learners who have had a good time popping bubbles on the screen, make sure to go outside and blow some real bubbles too! 

No matter what your child's speech and language goals are or what technology you have available to you, screens can be a valuable, motivating tool for teaching and generalizing skills. Be sure to evaluate which apps you allow your child to utilize and be mindful of how much screen exposure your child is getting. Use technology as a supplement, not a substitute, for hands-on learning and play. Most importantly, maintain interactions with your child to maximize learning and opportunities for communication while having fun with your child at the same time!

Consult with your SLP to obtain specific apps that are recommended for your child!

-written by Jessica Hawkins, MA, CCC-SLP 

(Jessica is a talented therapist and has been with Speechtree Therapy since 2008)


Article originally appeared on Speech Tree Therapy (
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