The serve and return: In language, not tennis

You may have heard the term “serve and return” in the field of child development. When caregivers engage with their child in serve and return, it strengthens neural connections. So, what is it? In essence, it is a caregiver’s responsiveness to a child’s cues. Ideally, a back-and-forth engagement with the caregiver and child will take place. And great news- the serve and return doubles as a listening and spoken language strategy! Below you will find some simple steps to encourage the serve and return.

Name it: When an infant looks at you and smiles, that is their serve. Return it by smiling back and naming it, “You smiled at me! You’re smiling!” Labeling the child’s actions gives them more opportunities to hear and learn vocabulary.

Wait: Once you have returned a serve, wait for the child to respond. Do not continue talking and reacting to their initial serve. Children need time to absorb the information given to them, process it, and decide what their next interaction should be. Wait time is especially important with children who are deaf and hard of hearing. We want to ensure reciprocal interactions continue and are not one-sided.

Expand: If the child smiles at you once again, expand your original idea. “I see you smiling again. You must feel happy. I love when you smile.” We want children to be immersed, but not overwhelmed, with language. Keep your sentences simple while continuing to talk about the interaction.

Watch: Continue watching for more ways you can take turns with the child. Is the child ready to move on to something else with which you can engage them? Can you continue building on the same interaction?

The serve and return is vital to use with infants, but it can be used in children of all ages to encourage language development. For example, if a three-year-old is playing with blocks, you can engage in a back-and-forth interaction with them. Join the child and name it, “You’re playing blocks! Can I play too?” Wait for the child to respond. This could be through a direct verbal response to you or by the child picking up another block. Now expand. “I want to build a block tower. What will you make with the blocks?” Watch and see if the child continues to engage with you. The goal is for this to be a multi-turn interaction.

The serve and return can be implemented while embedding a variety of listening and spoken language strategies. See how many turns a child can take with you. For more information on “serve and return”, click here.




Abby Meister

Abby Meister, MSDE, CED is the content coordinator of the Emerson Center for Professional Development at CID – Central Institute for the Deaf. She has been a teacher of the deaf for over 10 years, primarily working with children ages 2-5. She has presented at professional conferences with content focusing on early intervention and listening and spoken language strategies for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. She received her master’s degree in deaf education through the Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences (PACS) at Washington University.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This