Tips from Speech Therapy: Encouraging a Speech Delayed Toddler to Talk
My son began his journey with speech therapy services at 20 months old and made HUGE progress within the first six months of his therapy.
I am a big fan of speech therapy services, not only because I saw results from those appointments, but also because the visits help ME know how to best show up for my toddler in a way that will aid in speech development.
Little changes in the way I speak to my son, the way I read to him, and how our family interacts with him are things I’ve learned from his speech therapist and have helped him truly explode in his language development.
I have been taking notes of things I’ve learned along the way and thought I’d put them all together in a blog post to hopefully help other parents walking this similar path.
I especially hope it’s helpful for the parents who are in the “waiting” stage prior to being able to get therapy rolling.
We started our son’s speech journey in March of 2019 and didn’t have our first visit from the speech therapist until August of that year…so it can take awhile!
We have been so blessed to have home speech therapy services and a language pathologist who comes into our home to work with our son on his communication skills through language therapy.
These tips are purely for children who are working on expressive language. My son had no delay with receptive communication so I knew his understanding was there, he was just needing to learn how to communicate the words!
Obviously the best advice and answers to any questions you may have in order to help your individual child with their speech language should be asked to their therapist. Listen to their advice, resources, and therapy tips but these are some of the things we’ve personally been doing with our son and have learned from his speech language pathologists.
Communicating with a Speech Delayed Toddler
It is very important to speak slowly, clearly and briefly when talking to a speech delayed toddler.
Label EVERYTHING and in the early days stick to one word labels.
Basically narrate your entire day and the things you normally do with your toddler.
Repeating the same word over and over helps and be sure to create word to object association by holding an object close to your mouth as you say the label for it.
Hold up a shoe, say “shoe, shoe, shoe” then put the shoe on.
It can also be helpful to pair a word with an action or sign. For example, signing “more” whenever giving your child additional food or drink at meal time and saying the word “more” while signing will help them learn to communicate through this sign as well.
I thought sign language would discourage my son from talking but his speech therapist said it can be helpful in learning to speak and also to help avoid frustrations when unable to communicate!
Labeling everything takes some practice but quickly becomes part of the daily routine!
It’s funny because now, six months into therapy, our son naturally labels EVERYTHING. He’s so used to us doing it that he just thinks it’s how we talk 😉
Once one label is mastered, try to use a different word for that object. Like all footwear may be labeled as a “shoe” at first but once the child is using the word consistently you can start differentiating between types of shoes. “Boot, sneaker, slipper” etc.
It is also great to stick with one word phrases until the phrase is mastered and then add an additional word.
For example, you may say “water” for a long time when offering a drink but once the child starts using the label you then start saying “water cup” whenever you hand them their cup!
It is also good to change up the label with something that is the same meaning.
For example our son mastered “ugh-oh” pretty quickly so his speech therapist had us stop using “ugh-oh” and instead say “Oh-no!” Same meaning, but different words to use!
Shortening Words and Require Word Usage
Some words are difficult for toddlers to say, even those without a language delay!
For those words it’s wise to shorten them. “Water” is a great example.
Our son at first said “wa” for water and his speech therapist said that’s great! For a long time we referred to water as “wa wa” when labeling.
As the child begins to use a word or partial word for an object or action, require it.
One way to do this is to “play dumb.” Your child is whining and looking at a cup and you KNOW he wants that cup of water but instead of handing the cup you say “What? Do you want something?”
This helps train the child that language is helpful! When they use words, they get what they are wanting quicker!
I struggled to play dumb, I’d just always forget in the moment so something I did was require use of the word before giving the item to my son.
He would whine for the water cup and I would hold the cup to my mouth and say “wa wa” and say “say wa wa and I will give you the cup.”
Again, I knew his receptive skills were at the developmental norm for his age so his speech instructor said it was appropriate to require him to use words once I was confident that he’d mastered them.
I would ask five times for the word to be used and if he still didn’t use the word after the fifth time (he’s STUBBORN) then I’d go ahead and give the item to avoid frustration.
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Reading to Help Encourage Speech
I have always enjoyed reading with my children from an early age. There is nothing quite as sweet as cuddling up with your babies to read a bedtime story.
The biggest thing that changed in our routine with our son when he started speech therapy was the way we read books with him.
Instead of reading the words on the pages and telling the story, books and reading time became a great way to work on language development through labeling.
We look at the pictures in the book together and repeat labels.
It was hard for me at first to stick to the one word labels! When you see a cow you naturally want to say “cow says mooooo” but instead I’d point to the cow and say “cow” then have him point with me and I’d repeat “cow.”
Soon it became a game where he’d point to an object on a page and I’d label it. As he progressed in his speech he’d start labeling himself, again once a label was mastered we’d add to it.
Cow eventually became “cow moo” etc.
Even now, 6 months into speech therapy, we still mostly stick with very simple books with words and short phrases and use reading time for building on the language he’s developed.
Pausing to Let Child Talk
My toddler is my FOURTH child. Life is busy. Life is quick.
I realized a big thing I had to work on was PAUSING.
With older siblings always eager to jump in it’s hard to WAIT and let our toddler TALK.
The older kids want to help and know the word we’re trying to get the toddler to say so they jump in.
I’m also quick to move on and not allow him enough time.
While reading I’d point to the cow and say “cow!” Then say “Now you say cow?” And wait like 3 seconds before saying “cow” again.
I found that it often took a solid TWENTY SECONDS before my son would reply with a word.
Twenty seconds sounds like nothing but it can feel like an eternity. I’d literally count to 20 in my head before moving on in order to give him that time and not rush him.
No one is perfect and there is NO WAY I can wait a full 20 seconds every time I ask my son something or each time I work on labeling with him.
That’s okay! None of these tips are something we can ALL do ALL of the time! But everything helps!
Expose Child to Language Opportunities
Being home with my son all day makes it difficult to know how well he’s truly doing with his speech.
Is his speech clear to others or do I just know what he needs because I’m his mom?
In talking with his speech therapist she said the more exposure to people outside our home our son can have, the better when it comes to working on improving his language delays.
First, being around other children is beneficial because he hears them talking and it encourages him to talk too!
Second, being around other adults is helpful because those adults don’t KNOW him the way I do. They aren’t in tune to his needs or what a certain grunt may mean.
It forces him to have to speak in order to be understood!
My husband and I made the decision to enroll him in a preschool program two mornings a week and I believe it made a big impact on his language skills!
Dropping him off for Bible Class on Sundays at church is also a great place for him to work on his language with an adult other than myself or my husband.
It has been so great for him to have these places as HIS and he’s loved attending school and adores his teachers and they have been just as excited to see his language develop as we have!
Continuing to Build Language Skills
The language you use with your child should always be one step ahead of where they are in their abilities.
In the beginning our son didn’t say pretty much any words at all. He had very little language.
So keeping things very simple and using one word for labeling was important.
Using the earlier shoe example, in the beginning every time I put on his shoes I simply said “shoe.”
As he started to use one word consistently, we then added in an additional word.
“Shoe” then became “shoe on” as I put on his shoes.
Once he started saying “shoe on” consistently I started to say “Put shoes on.”
Being one step ahead in their abilities helps to continue to expand their vocabulary.
As they begin to master simple labeling, it’s then a great time to add in more descriptive language.
Animal sounds and action words were the first additions to our labeling.
“Cow moo” “Shoes on”
Colors, counting, body parts, and verbs are all great to add as well and to continue to build on the words your child is using consistently.
Helpful Items for Toddler Language Development
Truly, you don’t need to purchase ANYTHING in order to help your child be exposed to language and to help encourage speech development.
I have found a few things that were helpful to us and thought I’d share them as well.
On mornings that our son doesn’t have school I usually have him watch 30 minutes of movie time while I make lunch and I heard awesome things about the Baby Babble DVD.
He really enjoys the video and it has AWESOME reviews!
His favorite part of speech therapy is going through flash cards. I did NOT buy any for home use because I want it to be something he loves during his sessions.
But these are the cards they use and they are awesome!
We use just whatever books we have for reading time and label the pictures rather than reading the words, however we do have a few favorites that he LOVES and that give lots of options for labeling and adding on additional words as he advances.
This book is excellent for the beginning stages of speech therapy work. The colors are very bright and help to keep a toddler’s attention and the pictures are real-life photos and easy to work on simple phrases for labeling.
He also really enjoys touch and feel type books as they also help to keep that short toddler attention span! These books are all excellent and ones we also use for practicing labeling.
Randomly for a Christmas gift I bought him a couple of these look and find style of books and never even thought about using them for speech development…but he is OBSESSED with these books.
These books are EXCELLENT for labeling. They have TONS of pictures that are all showing activity.
They have been wonderful for adding verbs into his vocabulary and the pages all relate so a story can be told without any words even being used on the pages.
6 Month Update on Spear’s Speech Delay:
Even though this is an update on Spear’s first six months in speech therapy, it’s truly been a year long journey with speech.
I have had many people ask me about delayed speech concerns with their own children and my advice is simply to push for services.
If your pediatrician says to “wait and see” push for a referral anyway. Go find a private speech therapy practice to get evaluated.
Yes, your child may just take longer to talk. Yes, they may totally catch up on their own. Sure, they may just randomly start talking one day.
But getting services will only HELP!
I am so, so thankful that I pushed as much and as hard as I did in order to get Spear speech services.
It has been INCREDIBLE to see how quickly he’s advanced in just 6 months!
Our Speech Services
Spear receives his services in our home and they are part of a state program.
I’ve been nothing but impressed!
His speech therapist comes over one morning a week for his 30 minute session and Spear adores Ms Lauren (and Kari, who has been helping during Lauren’s maternity leave) and will RUN to the door to see her.
I am always in the room with them and we stay in Spear’s room to have him secluded as well as comfortable.
Entry Speech Evaluation
When Spear was initially evaluated he showed average skills for receptive communication.
Receptive communication is attending to a speaker and responding with awareness. He understood (and understands) what we say and could do things like point to identify familiar objects in a book etc.
His expressive communication is the area in which he qualified for speech services. He showed a significant delay in this area as he was not acquiring or using speech at the rate of same aged peers.
He said under 5 words when we had him evaluated in June of 2019.
At this point he was 18 months old and was not saying many real words at all and had mostly babbling and the words he did say only we could really understand and they were not consistent.
He was mostly quiet during the entire evaluation!
He scored average with both motor and cognitive skills as well during his eval and passed both vision and hearing.
Hearing loss can be a common concern with speech delay so having a health exam as part of the evaluation is important and we even went to an ENT to be sure he didn’t have fluid in his ears.
Part of the evaluations he received also involved testing to rule out being on the autism spectrum and to see if he was hitting all of his other developmental milestones so those types of delays can also be focused on if needed.
Six Month Speech Evaluation
We saw improvements in Spear’s speech VERY quickly upon starting to receive services.
It truly has been incredible!
Within just a couple of months Spear was well over 50 words and at this point he’s well beyond 100.
He labels literally everything he sees and touches and often uses counting and colors (although typically not the correct color)
We have really been focused on verb usage and he is doing great with that and says many three and four word sentences and phrases.
He knows names and is working a lot on “me, mine, I” which is a tricky thing to learn.
With the coronavirus currently affecting our lives we’re not meeting with his speech therapist and instead she has been sending emails with materials to work on.
Honestly though? I haven’t even been doing a lot of it with him.
Having all of us at home so much together has made it easy to focus on his language all day everyday and he’s continued to build on his language skills!
He did still qualify to continue services (but just barely) and I’m eager for us to be allowed to meet with his therapist again in person soon, however I also predict he will no longer qualify for services once he hits age 3.
I am so beyond thankful for the incredible strides he’s made and I hope our experience and journey can help encourage others as well!