Tips for expanding language at Christmas

“It's the most wonderful time of the year!” So the song goes, and for many children at least (not so much adults) that may be true. However, for other children, especially those with SEN, it's actually the most stressful and difficult time of the year. For some people reading this, whose children struggle with change, your aim for Christmas won't be so much about expanding language but more about getting through it with as few meltdowns as possible.

If that's you, you may just want to read the first half of this post! For others, your children with SEN may really enjoy the fun of Christmas and we all know that when children (or any of us) are enjoying something, that's a great opportunity to learn. The second half of the post aims to give you some ideas to weave language development into the usual Christmas activities that we all get involved in.

Img: Creative Commons
Img: Creative Commons

The run-up to Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year. It's my daughter's first year at school and, although I can understand why, I've been amazed at how early she came home from school insisting that it was Christmas because they had started practising songs for the Christmas play. For many children, waiting is very difficult, and waiting for 6+ weeks is far too big a challenge. And in those weeks everything changes from the usual routine, and each day becomes confusing for children. Unfortunately, we can't change the world in which they live, but what things can we do to make all the changes in the run-up to Christmas a tiny bit easier? These ideas are not original to me, I found most of them here and here.

  • Let your child know what will be happening. For some children, a calendar with different events marked on will be helpful (going to see Santa, school Christmas play etc). For others they need something much more to the minute and what is happening today (or just now and next) is all that they can cope with. Either way, be consistent in spending time telling your child what will happen, using pictures if they need that (and pictures can sometimes be very helpful even if you don’t think your child needs them).
  • Avoid some things if they are too stressful. Things like Santa are supposed to be fun, and if they're not, don't do them. This can be hard if you have other children, but you can always try telling the other children that Santa has given x's presents to you to deliver instead.
  • Presents can be very stressful for some children who find surprises difficult. If your child struggles with this, reduce the surprise element for them. Eg. Try wrapping the presents in cellophane so that they can have the fun of unwrapping but already know what is inside. Alternatively, put a picture of the gift on the label, so they know what is inside. If unwrapping is frustrating, don't wrap them at all. Also, alter the number and pace of presents to suit your child. If they can only cope with one present at a time, spread them out over the whole day or even the whole week.
  • Try to involve your child in changes as much as possible. Eg let them see the decorations being put up, rather than just coming home to find that everything looks different. It might be useful to get the decorations out and let your child see them and familiarise themselves with them before they go up. If you have photos of your tree etc from last year look through them with your child and let them look at them over the week or so leading up to the decorations being put up so they are familiar with what it will look like.
  • Explain what you are doing and why to other family members who you are going to see, so that they can support you. EG if your child will find it hard to open a present from a relative which is suddenly produced, explain to them in advance why you would prefer they didn't do that.

For other children, they are already over-excited and have been nagging you to put the tree up for 2 weeks already (or is that just in my house?). If your child is really excited by Christmas, here are some ideas to incorporate language development into the fun!...

  • Advent calendars are a great opportunity to talk about time concepts. These can be so tricky for many children, especially those with language difficulties. An advent calendar gives you 25 ready-made opportunities to talk about yesterday/today/tomorrow. Look at the picture (or chocolate or toy) and talk about it –“ look what we have today. What did we have yesterday? I wonder what we will get tomorrow.” There are more ideas for using advent calendars to support language here.
  • There are lots of opportunities to repeat new vocabulary in real-life contexts at Christmas. Some Christmas words are more generally useful than others – I don’t think your child will have many opportunities to use “myrrh” or “manger” in everyday life, but a word like “robin” or “crown” may be new and more functional. Keep repeating the words as they come up – the great thing about Christmas is that they will come up over and over again without you trying (Christmas cards, advent calendars, TV etc). Loads and loads of opportunities to point them out and talk about them while doing things your child is really enjoying!
  • There are lots of great opportunities to practise sequencing and story-telling at Christmas. There is the Christmas story itself which you can use pictures to tell again (if you haven’t got the time or energy to go looking for pictures to use for this, you could take pictures of the school play if your school allow it, or use pictures on Christmas cards or the ones here). You can also take pictures of exciting Christmassy things that you do as a family. Flick through the photos on your phone or camera with your child afterwards and see if they can use them to talk about what they have done that day.
  • Anything exciting always offers great opportunities to work on adjectives. See how many different words you and your child can think of together to describe the decorations (sparkly, shiny, colourful, shimmering…) Father Christmas (tall, old, magical, generous…) or any other Christmas thing that takes your fancy!

Christmas is always a great opportunity to work on “s” sounds in particular, so if your child is working on those look out for all the words containing “s” – Christmas, Santa Claus, star, stocking, sack, sledge, snow!...

I'd better sign off there and make a start on the never-ending list of things to do before Christmas!  I'm sure time goes faster at this time of year!...

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Helen Coleman SpeechBlogUK

Speech & Language Therapist at Speech Blog UK
Helen is a speech and language therapist with more than 10 years' experience of working with children, families and schools.She is a regular columnist for Special Needs Jungle and also blogs jointly with Elizabeth Gunner at Speechbloguk.
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