Beyond Brown Bear: The Best Books to Encourage First Words

Language and literacy are inextricably related, developing together from birth. Oral language skills, including vocabulary and grammar/syntax development, form the foundation for storytelling and story comprehension.

As speech and language pathologists, we look for new ways to foster these essential skills in those for whom they do not come easily. For example, reading picture books with children who have language delays provides opportunities to integrate language (especially new vocabulary) and literacy goals into one context. Here, we’ll examine a few techniques for building vocabulary and which books can best support those efforts.

Repetition and Pairing

Research demonstrates that children learn new vocabulary through multiple exposures to a new word in grammatically correct, linguistic, and experiential contexts. paired with descriptive, conceptual information.

For example, to learn the word “dog,” children must hear the word “dog” when a real dog, a picture of a dog, or a stuffed dog is present, and then be taught that this animal names “dog” says “woof”, is “furry”, and “wags her tail”. The child needs repeated opportunities to hear this word and the correlating descriptors applied to different real, pictured, or stuffed dogs.

A recent study by Mary Alt and colleagues found that children with language delays need to hear a new word, in context, 64 times within a session to learn it!2 In a follow-up study, they found that either 45 repetitions of six target words in a session or 90 repetitions of three target words in a session facilitated vocabulary acquisition.

Focused Language Stimulation

In language therapy, we use an evidence-based technique called Focused Language Stimulation to provide multiple exposures to target vocabulary words. Focused Language Stimulation suggests we must go beyond modeling a target word throughout a session and create concentrated models, as well. Alt and her colleagues reported that nine repetitions per minute in grammatically correct linguistic contexts was optimal.1

Here is an example of a concentrated model using the target “dog”:

“This is a dog. Hi dog. The dog says ‘woof.’ The dog wags his tail. Woof-woof dog. The dog is so happy. Now the dog is sleeping. Shhhh. Bye dog.”

Focused language stimulation does not require us to elicit the word “dog” from the child; concentrated exposure is enough. However, another well-researched therapy technique called milieu teaching may be an effective supplement. Using this technique, after modeling the target multiple times, we ask the child, “Who says ‘woof?’” which would then prompt the child to respond with “dog.”

Pairing Books with Focused Language Stimulation

Suppose we want the child to learn to say the word “duck.” Would you choose Brown Bear, Brown Bear or Five Little Ducks?

Both Brown Bear and Five Little Ducks feature the word and imagery associated with “duck.” Both books encourage active participation. The repetitive nature of both stories helps children to learn the text. and they soon engage actively in the reading. But between the two books, the better choice to facilitate “duck” is Five Little Ducks. The word “duck” is repeated at least 15 times in this story versus four times in Brown Bear.

Here are some of my other favorite books that use Focused Language Stimulation to facilitate early single words:

First nouns:
DADDY—The Daddy Book by Todd Parr
MOMMY—The Mommy Book by Todd Parr
CAT—Have You Seen My Cat? by Eric Carle
FISH—Hooray for Fish by Lucy Cousins
ANIMAL NAMES AND SOUNDS—I Can Say That by Suzy Lederer

First verbs:
EAT—Crunch Munch by Jack London
GO—Go Dogs Go: Book of Things That Go by PD Eastman
EAT, DRINK, HUG, KISS, CRY, SLEEP—I Can Do That by Suzy Lederer
WASH—Mrs. Wishy-Washy by Joy Cowley

Other early words:
MORE—Bear Wants More by Karma Wilson
NO—Where’s Spot by Eric Hill
UP—Great Day for Up by Dr. Seuss
GOODNIGHT—Goodnight, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman
HI, BYE, EAT, DONE, NO, MORE, UP, BABY, MOMMY—Hey, Hey Let’s All Say by Suzy Lederer

These techniques and books can of course be utilized by all pediatric SLPs but should also be suggested to parents and other care providers in the home to engage with the child and reinforce your work together between sessions.

To further help you understand and use these techniques and others, I offer a variety of courses on the development of single words, focused language stimulation, using books to facilitate vocabulary development, and more.

  1. Alt, M., Mettler, H. M., Erikson, J. A., Figueroa, C. R., Etters-Thomas, S. E., Arizmendi, G. D., & Oglivie, T. (2020). Exploring Input Parameters in an Expressive Vocabulary Treatment With Late Talkers. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research : JSLHR63(1), 216–233.
  2. Alt, M., Meyers, C., Oglivie, T., Nicholas, K., & Arizmendi, G. (2014). Cross-situational statistically based word learning intervention for late-talking toddlers. Journal of communication disorders52, 207–220.