All parents know the exhilarating feeling when their infant starts experimenting with their voice. These feelings are compounded with their first words and, overtime, as they improve their linguistic abilities by developing more complex forms of communication.
All children deserve the ability to speak fluently. It helps them express their thoughts, be understood by others, hold and maintain meaningful conversations, and excel academically in school. To do this, children learn the basis of forming sounds, and then combine these sounds into intelligible words. Overtime, they string words together into short phrases and then longer sentences.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult for many children to learn how to properly articulate certain speech sounds and words. They may substitute sounds in words, drop or omit sounds altogether, and distort them. These articulation errors can have a number of causes, but in many cases, they’re due to improper placement of a child’s tongue, lip, or jaw placement.
For many children, these errors may naturally correct themselves as they get older. However, for others these issues can persist and affect the intelligibility of a child’s speech. The National Center for Health Statistics found that problems with speech occur in nearly 5% of all children, making them the most common communication disorder.
The good news is that many speech errors can be corrected with helpful exercises. Regardless of whether you’re currently seeing a speech therapist, parents and caregivers play a vital role in improving their child’s speech and articulation. Children learn to speak from listening and interacting to those around them – and no one spends more time with your child than you!
Learning any new skills requires daily practice and repetition. At the same time, children are balls of energy and can become easily distracted, irritable, or bored. That’s why it’s so important to mix things up, and incorporate speech practice in a way that’s fun and engaging! Here’s a few fun activities to practice at home.
- “I Spy” Game: This is a great game to play at home or on a road trip. Try to amend this game by thinking of words that start with the targeted sound your child may be struggling with. For example, if they’re having difficulty with their /r/ sounds, you could say “I Spy something that starts with rrrrrrrrrr.” Give them clues, and then once they realize your thinking about the “rug” or “road” or “ring,” have them repeat the word several times. Not only will this help them practice their speech, but it can also help with vocabulary expansion and making associations between words and objects.
- Go Fish: This is a fun childhood favorite that can easily be adopted to target sounds. To start, you’ll need cards with pictures that start with the sounds your child is working on. There’s a great online resource called Mommy Speech Therapy that includes photos of words categorized by sound. For example, if your child is practicing their /s/ sounds, you’ll find pictures of “soup,” “sick,” and “see.” To play Go Fish, start by cutting out two pairs of each word. Then, mix up the cards. Each player starts with five cards and the remaining are put into a pile on the table. You and your child take turns asking each other if they have a matching card – saying each word out loud and emphasizing the target sound. If you don’t, say “go fish” and pull a card from the pile. The winner is the first person to have no cards left!
Using these photo cards, you can play a ton of other games as well. One example is a Memory Matching game, where you flip the cards over and scatter them across the table. Each time your child finds two cards that match, they have to repeat the word several times or use it correctly within a sentence.
Playing games like this have so many benefits on your child’s communication skills. In addition to improving their speech sounds, they help with critical thinking skills, problem solving, turn taking, and more!
- Letter Run: Kids are balls of energy, and sometimes sitting at a table and practicing card games just isn’t going to cut it. Here’s a super simple but effective way to get them up and moving. Tape a few letters or words that your child is practicing to the wall. Then, call out each word and have them run to the wall, touch the card, practice the sound three times correctly, and run back. If they mispronounce the sound, they have to run back and try again. Use a timer and race your child to spice things up. Or make them hop, skip, or dance to the words for an extra layer of fun.
- Scavenger Hunt: Another great way to combine exercise with speech practice is the perennial favorite scavenger hunt game. The rules are simple: your child must run around the house locating every single item they can find that starts with the targeted letter. Again, if they’re working on the /s/ sound, they could identify a sandal, stove, soap, sofa, snack, shampoo, shower, stool, sink, etc. Have your child practice pronouncing these words as they find them and, if they’re a little older, they can even snap photos or write them down.
- Mad Libs: Making up silly sentences with Mad Libs is a guaranteed way to induce lots of belly laughs. And remember, when speech therapy practice is fun, children are more likely to participate. Start by downloading some Mad Libs templates here. Then, use words that start with the targeted sounds to fill in the blanks. If your child is old enough, have them read the sentences and focus on their sound productions. Sure, some of these sentences will have wild grammatical errors – but that’s okay! At the end of the day, what’s most important is that your child is practicing.
- Turn Taking Games: Maybe your child already has some favorite games they enjoy playing. Focus on the ones that require players to take turns, like Connect Four or Clue for example. It’s extremely easy to incorporate speech practice into these games by simply having your child repeat sounds before they can take their turn.
Tips for Teaching your Child Communication Skills
As a parent or caregiver, creating a supportive and encouraging environment will help your child learn and thrive. Here’s a few tips to keep kiddos motivated.
- Rewarding Your Child: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Make sure to routinely reward your child for their positive behavior – either when they produce a sound correctly or complete practice. This can simply be providing your child with one of their favorite treats or allowing extra play time.
- Stay Positive: Practice is hard work, and it’s important that you remain a source of inspiration throughout. Smile, clap, and cheer frequently. They’ll associate this positive feedback with their own success and be more likely to repeat their accomplishments.
- Don’t Overcorrect: Speech errors are normal for developing children. Similar to above, you want to focus on their successes, not dwell on the mistakes. If you’re prone to calling out their errors, they may become discouraged or embarrassed and be less likely to practice.
How Often Should Your Practice?
Between school, work, errands, and keeping up with the household, finding time in the day can be challenging. At the same time, speech practice takes time, repetition, and persistence. The longer that speech errors persist, the harder they can be to correct. That’s why it’s important to engage your child in speech practice for about 30 minutes a day. Choose times when they’re most alert and receptive, such as after they eat lunch or an hour before bed. If 30 minutes is proving too long without losing their attention, break that time up into smaller segments.
When to Seek Professional Help from a Speech-Language Pathologist?
There are many reasons why children attend speech therapy. If you notice your kiddo is having difficulty with speech and language skills, not meeting communication milestones that are appropriate for their age, or lagging behind their peers, consider seeking an evaluation from a speech-language pathologist. They’ll work with your child to better understand their needs, determine whether intervention is recommended, and put together a treatment plan to help them reach their communication goals.
There are many places that offer speech therapy, including schools and clinics. Even before COVID-19, online speech therapy was increasing in popularity due to its affordability, convenience, and effectiveness. In fact, studies have shown that children make similar progress regardless of whether therapy is delivered virtually or in-person. At the end of the day, it’s most important to choose a speech therapy setting that’s right for your child and family.
About Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services.
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*This is a collaborative post