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The One Step Ahead Principle

As parents, we all know that you can't place a newborn on his feet and just expect him to walk. There are lots of little steps (pun intended) before we get to walking. At the same time, we help our babies strengthen the muscles they'll need for the next developmental milestone while they're working on it. We do tummy time before they can roll and hold their hands before they can walk. Speech and language are the exact same.

As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I often instruct parents to model language 1 step ahead of their child’s current abilities. This concept has a technical term (Zone of Proximal Development), but I like to just call it the “One Step Ahead Principle”. Very simply, whenever you are talking to your child, you want to be on their level or just one step above. Think of what they can do completely independently and then think of what would stretch their abilities just a little bit. That's right where you want to be. (If you're not sure of your child's current level or what would be their "next step", stay tuned. We'll be covering this all in the next couple of weeks.)

Let’s look at some examples of the 1 Step Ahead Principle.

Your child is 18 months old and says a few single words, including “please” and “milk”. She is pointing at the fridge and whining. You know she wants milk.

  • You say: “Milk please” or “Mama, milk” (or any 2-word phrase). This is one step ahead because you added one word to your child’s phrase.

Your child is 3 years old and uses a lot of sentences but only 2-3 words in the sentence are understandable. He is telling about his time at Grandma’s house, and he says, “Grandma [blah blah] make cookies [blah blah]!”

  • You say: “Grandma made cookies?! Yummy!” This is one step ahead because you used the same number of words but corrected the grammar. *Note: you didn’t say “It’s not ‘make’, sweetie. Say, ‘Grandma MADE cookies.’”. You just modeled it correctly and moved on.

  • -OR- You say: “You and grandma made cookies?! Yummy!” This is one step ahead (maybe two, but that’s okay) because you filled in those extra words in the sentence that your child was trying to use.

Your child is 4 years old and leaves the ending sounds off of some words. He can make most sounds except R and TH. He says, “Daddy, I hear the dump twu!”

  • You say: “The dump truCK?! Wow, let’s go see the dump truCK outside!” This is one step ahead because you are using sentences of similar length but focusing on a sound he doesn’t have yet.

Just like in one of the examples, you can sometimes be two steps ahead by adding fluff words to add some sense to what you're saying. Just try to put the most emphasis on the important, next step part!

If you need more specific help, please feel free to reach out to me on Instagram or in the comments below!




Schneider, P., & Watkins, R. V. (1996). Applying Vygotskian developmental theory to language intervention. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 27(2), 157-170.


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