How Do You Encourage Speech in Young Children?

One of my favourite memories of motherhood was the first time my son called me “mama”. I had looked forward to it for so long and was beginning to wonder if I’d ever hear it. Whilst my friends were posting the precious milestone as early as 9 months, but mostly around a year old, I was still waiting. It was almost J’s second birthday before he even began to use “mamamama” babble sounds, and it didn’t mean Mummy at first. But it slowly turned into ‘Mama’ and was all about me. By the time he had his 2nd birthday it was an official word.

(This photo was taken on the journey to our first speech therapy session in 2016. It has huge emotional memories for me)

I can tell you that it was heart wrenching waiting for him to say it. Frankly I didn’t care about all the other words in the word, that’s the one I wanted to hear. However, this didn’t change the fact that my son had massive delays in his speech (and his non-verbal communication). I think for most parents there are key words that you hope for, ones that will make life easier and less filled with frustration. Speech therapists have huge waiting lists, and some wont even see children until after they turn 3 years old.

That’s a long time to wait when you know that your child isn’t speaking as they should (if at all). It also means that children are not being given the tools and support they need to develop communication. Many parents are left in a sort of ‘black hole’. Here’s some suggestions that have worked for us and are easy to do at home, and out and about with your child.

Reduce your language

It’s easy to say too much, too fast sometimes. We feel like we have to bring in as much language as possible to ‘role model’ for our children. However, this could be doing the opposite. Young children will often have a smaller attention span and listening skills. This means they may only be listening to part of what we say (usually the last part of the sentences) and so they could actually be missing the ‘key words’. By making your sentences smaller and thinking about which are the important words will help focus your child on those sounds.

  • Child has a toy car….simply say “car”.
  • Child already has one word speech and has a toy car…say “blue car” or “big car”.
  • Add ‘ownership’ eg: “Bobby’s car”, “Daddy’s Car”, “Mummy’s car”.

Don’t ask the child to repeat word correctly

For some children they have the words, but its the clarity that is the issue. It can be tempting to correct them and ask them “say spa-ghet-ti”. Although its great for the children to hear the word correctly, by highlighting that they are saying it ‘wrong’ and asking them to repeat the word can cause anxiety. This may result in the child losing their self esteem and possibly regressing in speech more as they worry about saying it ‘wrong’. A more effective way to do is to create a sort of ‘mirroring’ sentence eg: “you’re right, spaghetti” or “we are having spaghetti”. The child is hearing the correct pronunciation but is feeling more ‘listening to’ than ‘corrected’.

Withhold items

I’m not saying that to be mean. It’s simply to create opportunity and a ‘need’ to speak. As parents we often know what our child was instinctively. They also become very quick to find ways to get their meaning across by pointing or taking you the item. If we were to take this away. If the item was out of reach, in a cupboard or in your bag the child would have a reason to talk. Start off by saying “I don’t know what you want, tell me?” or deliberately pick up the wrong item and say “oh, what do you want?”. Even if they don’t say the word fully but they make a verbal attempt then that’s good enough. It’s the start of communicating.

If (like my house) you are inundated with toys, try putting some away. Have them in a toy box, a cupboard or upstairs. This is especially helpful if your child has a ‘favourite’ that they always go for. Again, its give them a ‘need’ to ask you for it or to indicate that they need something. You could always take photos of them and have a ‘choices board’ (there’s examples of how we use this in our ‘visual communication’ post which you can read here). This gives them a visual of what the options are and they can then request what they are wanting.

Play ‘language rich’ games

There’s so many games you can play together to encourage speech.

  • Singing: as the words stay the same, and you don’t have to think of them yourself child often take to singing quicker.
  • Books: story books, fact books, word books…talk about the pictures, ask questions about what they see, repeat the books so the words become familiar.
  • Pretend play: act out shopping visits, looking after baby or soft animals, café trips…children can hear every day words that they recognise.
  • Treasure Hunts/Checklists: These focus on specific words. You can make your own based on the words you’d like to encourage or download premade ones such as the  ones from Twinkl (click here for examples of Supermarket and beach themed checklists). Children have the visual to act as a prompt or backup so they can be understand and praised for using the word.
  • Jigsaws: Puzzles and jigsaws are great to play together. You can talk about the pictures, colours, positioning, name the items etc. As said earlier, you can withhold some of the pieces so your child has to ask for them (or make an attempt to communicate).

Turn taking games

Games that mean waiting for a turn, or requesting the action be repeated is a great opportunity for communicating. Depending on your child’s age and abilities you can choose what works best for you. You can try games such as bubbles. Say ‘bubbles’ and blow them. Let your child pop them or chase them. Then hold it tightly. Encourage you child to make some form of communicating that they want you to do it again-they want a turn with the bubbles. It can be ‘more’, ‘bubbles’, ‘please’…whatever you feel is the level of your child. If they can already say ‘more’ then encourage them to use the more specific request of ‘bubbles’ or ‘more bubbles’.

Play ‘ready, steady, go’ games but pause after ‘steady’ so your child, in their eagerness to play will say “go”. For older children you can play board games such as snap, die games, memory card games. This involves your child waiting their turn. Although this doesn’t necessarily bring about speech (although they may want to request the die or say “my turn”) it encourages the skills needing to communicating. After all, talking to someone is like one big turn taking event…you say something, someone responds, you respond after. By encouraging turn taking you are building that routine of the social part of speech.

Syllable Games

If your child has speech, but it is unclear then activities that encourage splitting a word into its sounds can help. This doesn’t mean saying every individual letter as spelling is something that doesn’t come till later. Syllables means listening to the rhythm of the word. For example ‘cat’ is one syllable, ‘pen-cil’ is two syllables, ‘el-e-phant’ is three syllables. The best way to do this is through fun games so the child doesn’t feel they are being tested (see earlier about not correcting the child).

These can be done through games such as tapping the words out on a tambourine, stamping your feet like a dinosaur, jumping on trampoline. You can create a bag full of items and let your child take them out one at a time and clap the syllables out together. An alterative is to have the items already out and the adult claps the word slowly, and the child has to choose the correct item, then let your child have a go. There’s load more ideas in this Twinkl pack. It does say its for use in educational settings, however the resources can easily be used at home so feel free to click here for a nosey.

As the child practises these word it will help them form the sounds, move their tongue and cheeks into the positions needed and the words will start to become clearer. Sometimes, just having opportunity to slow their speech down can help.

Mouth Exercises

Some speech issues are caused by the way the mouth and tongue work and the position they are in. There’s some fun activities you can do to help encourage your child.

  • Blow through straws: blow feathers, leaves, ping pong balls, paint (as long as you are confident your child wont ‘suck’) or blow onto each others hands.
  • Suck through straws: allow your child to have a straw in their drink.
  • Mirror play: make silly faces in the mirror, put lipstick on and kiss the mirror or smother each other in kisses. Do big mouth movements, small ‘oo’ and ‘ee’ sounds.
  • Tongue games: sticking tongue out, moving it around the mouth and the lips. Lick the sugar from a doughnut from around your mouth (or sprinkles).
  • Singing: sing songs with silly noises in them or create songs such as ‘happy and you know it’ with ‘open your mouth’, ‘stick out your tongue’, ‘shout ah’ etc.

Where to go for support

There’s lots of online services and websites that can be helpful. We have used:

  • I CAN (speech and language experts with online and phone advice)
  • Makaton (a form of signing that can help alongside speech)
  • PECS UK (a system which uses symbols and pictures to promote communicating).

For us, speech has improved dramatically in the last year. My son is now using basic sentences, and his speech is getting clearer. He still has difficulty with ‘flexible thinking’ when it comes to talking, and the social side of communicating. We still use both Makaton and PECS but these are ‘back ups’ now rather than his only form of communicating. One of the best bits of advise I can give is to take videos on your phone. On a day to day basis you may not hear the changes in your child, but if you look back over videos you can often hear the leaps they are making. I listen back to videos from a year ago on days where I feel we’re not getting anywhere and it always makes me smile.

I’d love to know your views, do any activities sound like ones you’d like to try? Are there any more you’d like to add? You can comment below or come find me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Disclaimer: I am a Twinkl Blogger. This means that I get my subscription free in return for sharing our experiences of Twinkl and their resources. All views are my own, I just have a genuine love for Twinkl Resources.

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