Top 3 Proven Speech Therapy Tips When Your Child’s Speech Is Unclear

Do you have problem understanding what your child is saying?

Does she say “yion” instead of “lion” or makes mistakes with other sounds?

Is your child getting left out in school or at the playground because other children cannot understand him?

It is frustrating for both you and your child when you cannot understand her, and have to ask multiple questions just to clarify. Here are the main reasons we frequently explain to our speech therapy clients why your child has unclear speech:

Muscle weakness.

Various muscles are involved when producing speech, and sometimes the inability to move these muscles may cause speech to be unclear. For example, your child may not be able to lift up the tip of his tongue in order to produce the ‘l’ sound.

Control and Coordination.

The problem may not be muscle weakness, but rather your child has difficulties coordinating the movements. This is similar to people who are not able to dance. There is nothing actually wrong with their legs, but they dance ‘with two left feet’. So, your child may be able to say ‘l’ in ‘lion’ but unable to say ‘l’ in “caterpillar”. Or she might say ‘lion’ one minute and ‘yion’ the next, and ‘wion’ the next.

Phonological difficulties.

This is more about having a cognitive concept of sounds, as opposed to the physical aspect of producing speech. For example, if your child grew up speaking or hearing Mandarin Chinese, he may be say ‘hou-‘ instead of ‘house’ or ‘cat-‘ instead of ‘catch’.

It is not that he is unable to produce the ‘-se’ or the ‘-ch’ sound; it is simply because there are no such ending sounds in Mandarin and thus makes it more difficult for him to understand the concept that there are ending sounds in English.

Why Speech Therapy is Important

A speech therapist is a professional who is specifically trained to diagnose and treat speech problems in children (and adults). Speech therapy is important because it:

1. Makes your life easier

2. Eliminates the vicious cycle: unclear speech causes less interaction and therefore less speech input and worse speech and language.

When your child has unclear speech, this may result in less interaction with other children, which would result in even worse speech and language because of the lack of practice. Even adults attend speech therapy classes for this reason alone.

3. Affects how your child learns to read.

Instead of learning that the letter ‘s’ has the sound in ‘sock’, for example, if he says ‘tock’ instead, he may end up thinking that the letter ‘s’ has a ‘t’ sound.

The 4 Guiding Principles for Speech Therapy

Teaching a child with unclear speech may be different from how you teach other children in your family. You may need to repeat more often and emphasize the sounds more. Here are a few things we use regularly in speech therapy when tackling your child’s unclear speech:

Be aware that clear speech sounds comes down to the oral motor movements of the tongue or lips or other speech muscles. (It’s not ‘All about that bass’ it’s ‘All about the place’!) The placement of the tongue, that is.

We produce different speech sounds in tongue twisters (“She sells sea-shells on the sea shore.”) and in everyday speech because we are able to move our tongue to different positions within the mouth, and also by producing sounds in different ways. Some sounds are ‘quiet blowing sounds’ such as ‘f’, ‘s’, ‘sh’; some other sounds are ‘noisy sounds’ such as ‘z’, or ‘r’.

Be aware that some sounds develop earlier, some sounds develop later.

The general developmental order of speech is ‘from the outside in’. This means that it is easier for your child to use their lips and jaw than their tongue. Hence, it is important to note that some sounds don’t come as easily as the others.

Be aware that not all words that begin with the same letter or sound will be equally easy or difficult.

A child who is having difficulty saying “k” sounds will find it easier to say the sound in a word such as “kite” where the mouth is more open and there is more space for the tongue at the back of the mouth compared to saying it correctly in “key” where the mouth is more closed.

Be aware that getting from where he is right now to the target sound may take a few intermediate steps.

For instance, if your child cannot say “the” and says “ge” instead, she may need to learn to progress from ‘g’ to ‘d’ and then ‘th’. Anything that moves her in the right direction is progress.

Now that we’ve gone through the ‘why’, it’s time for the ‘how’:

Here are the top 3 speech therapy tips:

1. Slow Down, emphasize the sound and do everything you can to show your child the necessary tongue and lip movements.

If your child says ‘totate’ instead of “chocolate”, rather than just telling your child ‘No, say chocolate’, at your usual conversational speed, try to slow down, and emphasize the sound: ‘ch-ocolate‘. Exaggerate what you do with your mouth. Look in a mirror together with your child while you are teaching so that he can see what you are both doing.

If your child cannot say the entire word, at least try to get a small part of the word right, for example, just being able to say the sound on its own “ch-ch-ch” or even just the sound partly right, such as just being able to blow out the air, or just rounding the lips.

2. Help your child to hear what it’s not and what it is.

Help your child to avoid mistakes and say sounds correctly by showing them what it is not and what it is. For example, “I don’t have any coyour pencils, these are all colour pencils. What would you like?” Your child will be more likely to say “colour pencil” correctly.

It is also important for you to give them very clear feedback. This includes mimicking what your child is doing, or describe the sound in a language your child can understand. For example, you could say: “If you say ‘-op’ your friend may not understand you. It’s a quiet sound ‘h-op’.”

3. One Game Changer Tip: Teach it aloud, then say it silently, then say it aloud again.

One great speech therapy tip I found with my experience is to focus the on the movement of the mouth. Ask your child to say the word, for example, ‘strawberry’ with you. On the second attempt, just mouth the word without saying it aloud.

Encourage your child to move his mouth in the same way. This allows your child to focus more on the movements of the mouth. Using a mirror can help your child see exactly how they are moving their mouths.

Please understand that correcting unclear speech through speech therapy exercises is a process. Being able to do it slowly is better than not being able to do it at all. Speech therapy for learning the necessary lip and tongue movements is more like learning to dance or how to play the piano rather than learning a new language.

Just knowing the word is not the same as being able to move the tongue quickly enough to say the word. It takes practice and the more you practice, the better you get. So you want to try to get your child to say the word more than just once. One time is NOT practice.

Remember: your child is where he is right now because of how he learns so far. If your child learns speech differently, he needs to be taught differently. Seek help from a professional and consult a speech therapist.

Working along with a speech therapist will save you and your child a lot of time and frustration. More often than not, your child will also enjoy the speech therapy sessions too!