What to Do When You Don’t Understand Your Child’s Speech
Monica Gustafson, B.A., MSHA
Speech is a skill that children learn, starting with the first sounds they start making as babies. This learning process is known as vocal play. Once children begin to understand language, they use the sounds they have learned to form new words. For most children, their first words are made up of sounds that are easy to make, such as Mama, Dada, or bye-bye. Parents find it easy to understand what their children have said.
As children begin to develop more complicated language, more complicated sounds are incorporated, such as /s, sh, r, th/, and /l/. With more complicated language comes the production of longer words that require more fine motor control and effort to make. Most children, by the time they are ready to go to school, have speech that is intelligible to an unfamiliar listener.
Some children take longer to develop their speech to a level where everything they say can be understood. There are a variety of reasons why this happens. A complete assessment by a speech-language pathologist can help you to understand the problem and what you, as parents, can do for your child.
As parents, you have listened since your child said that first word. As a result, your child’s speech pattern may become like a unique language to you. You understand that when your child sys something like tutu, the child is probably asking for a cookie. However, to people who are unfamiliar with your child’s speech patterns, the word is unintelligible and meaningless. For a child who is experiencing these kinds of difficulties, attempts at speech may be very frustrating. Speech may not always be intelligible, even to the child’s own parents, and the child may speak as little as possible to avoid the frustration. Parents, too, feel frustrated in being unable, at times, to understand their child’s efforts at communication. If your child is having difficulties with speech, the following suggestions may be helpful.
Avoid Direct Correction
When your child says a word that is in direct error, try to avoid directly pointing it out. Saying to a child, “That’s not right. Say “cookie”, not “tutu,” may give the wrong message. Acceptance at a child’s attempts at communication, especially by parents, is very important t any age.
Repeat and Model
When your child does say something in error that you recognize, repeat the word or phrase using a slightly slower rate, and place some emphasis on the word. For example, if the child says, “I want a tutu,” say, “Oh, you’d like a cookie?”
Ask For a “Replay”
If your child says something that you don’t understand, asking for a “replay” gives you a second chance to interpret what was said. You might say something such as “I didn’t quite hear what was said. Could you say that again?” When the child does repeat what was said, watch for gestures or eye movement in a particular direction that might give you a hint as to what your child wants. For instance, your child might look towards a cookie jar or be physically suggesting that a trip to the bathroom is in order.
Ask For a Demonstration
If you’re still unable to understand your child’s attempts at communication, ask your child to show you what is desired. Put the blame for the lack of understanding on your ears rather than on the child’s speech. For example, you might say, “You know, I don’t know what’s wrong with my ears today, but I can’t quite understand what you said you wanted. Can you help me by showing me what you want?” When the child leads you to the correct object s say “Oh, that’s what you said! You wanted some juice,” putting a slow emphasis on the corrected word.
Play with Sounds
The process of learning speech sounds is largely one of imitation. The child hears what is said and repeats it. Most attempts a child makes at words are the child’s version of what they heard the adult say. To encourage the correct production of a variety of sounds, parents can play sound games with their children. Examples of these activities are as follows:
- “What does the _____ (animal name) say?” Children generally like animals, and playing games which imitate animal noises can be a fun way to develop sounds. Don’t forget the angry cat which says, “F-F-F”, the donkey that says, “He-haw, He-haw,” or the crow that says, “Caw-caw-caw.”
- “I have something which makes a _____ sound.” Gather a collection of toys, each of which has a specific noise associated with it (such as an airplane, a truck, a train, a phone, or various animals). Keep the toys in a bag and have the child guess which one you are about to pull out after listening to you make the sound. Once the child has guessed, let the child have a turn being the sound maker. This activity not only helps the child to develop speech sounds, it gives some practice in listening skills.