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8 Strategies To Help Your Preschooler With Delayed Speech

Updated on August 16, 2013

Eliminate your child's frustration with speech!

Children learn and develop at their own pace. I’ve had three children, cared for a few dozen, taught a few hundred, and three years ago, became a grandma. I’m a storyteller and I like to talk, which means if they had any hope of every getting a word in edgewise, most of the children in my life have ended up with well-developed communication skills, but not all. Today, my bright and intelligent, 3½-year-old grandchild struggles with speech delay. Early on we recognized that although she understood what we were saying to her, when she attempted to communicate, no one understood much of what she said.

Hearing tests came back normal and doctors assured us her social-emotional development was also normal. So, at 2 ½ years old, her name went on a waiting list for speech therapy. Without private coverage, her parents were warned the waiting list could be up to a year. They weren’t kidding. We are still waiting. In the meantime, our clever girl has developed her own creative communication style which includes drawing what she wants to say. Brilliant, the only problem is she draws as well as any 3 ½ year old.

During a recent picnic, I recognized she had become upset. When I asked what was wrong, she responded that her playmates didn’t understand what she was saying. Months earlier, I had overheard other children ask her if she was speaking English. Sadly, I had to acknowledge that with each passing month, the gap between her low range expressive speech and her high range vocabulary had expanded, and so too had her anxiety. I wanted to cry along with her. Desperate to alleviate her frustration, I began researching delayed speech and have come up with 8 strategies I hope will help her.

Early Identification

Estimates of Developmental Language Disorders' incidence range from about 5 to 10% of preschool children, and boys are much more likely to be affected than girls.

Early identification and intervention for children with speech and language disorders ensures they receive help during the critical years of their intellectual, social and communication development. Doctors will consider physical, neurological and psychological factors that may or may not be contributing to the child’s delay before referring them to a speech language pathologist.

What is Normal?

The first thing to considered is what's “normal" and what's not in speech and language development.

By the time a child is two years old, parents and regular caregivers should understand half of the child's speech. By age three, the child’s vocabulary should include 600 words with 80% of their speech intelligibility to a listener who does not know the child. By four years old, a child should be mostly understood, even by people who don't know the child.

What is the Problem?

There are three major types of problem which could require speech therapy techniques.

Articulation: The child has difficulty producing sounds clearly enough for others to understand what's being said.

Fluency: The child has problem with the flow of speech which is interrupted by abnormal stoppages, repetitions, or prolonging sounds and syllables.

Resonance or voice: The child struggles with the pitch, volume, or quality of their voice which, in turn, distracts the listener from what's being said. The child may also experience pain or discomfort when speaking.

Cause Factors

Oral impairments such as problems with the tongue or palate (the roof of the mouth), may cause otherwise normally developing children to struggle with speech delay. A short frenulum (the fold beneath the tongue) can limit tongue movement for speech production.

Oral-motor problems may restrict efficient communication in the areas of the brain responsible for speech production. The child encounters difficulty using and coordinating the lips, tongue, and jaw to produce speech sounds.

Lack of stimulation at home or at childcare where the opportunities for communication exchange are limited, and/or the child does not receive positive feedback when they do speak, may result in speech delay.

8 Strategies to Help

Speech-language therapy is the primary treatment for most kids with speech and/or language disorders, but experts agree that parental involvement is crucial to the success of a child's progress.

  1. Communicate: Engage your child in conversation. Use descriptive language and be patient as your child attempts to communicate. Allow him time to respond and acknowledge his attempts, even when he is difficult to understand. Resist providing answers.

  2. Play: Interact with your child by playing and talking. Use pictures, books, objects, or ongoing events to stimulate language development. During play, model correct pronunciation and use repetition exercises to build speech and language skills.

  3. Signing: If you chose to include signing to reduce your child’s frustration, always verbalize the appropriate words in tandem with the hand motions.

  4. Read: Choose colorful books with large, simple pictures and encourage your child to help you identify the images.

  5. Articulation: Articulate the correct sounds and syllables, and physically show your child how to make certain sounds by demonstrating how to move the tongue to produce the desired sounds.

  6. Music: The use of music enhances language, listening, memory and expression skills.

  7. Family photos: Share the experience of looking at family photos while discussing events and people in the picture with your child.

  8. Exercises: Speech delay may be a result of underdeveloped muscles around the mouth. There are a number of oral exercises you can introduce to work these muscles and to help your child’s awareness of the mouth and positions of the lips, tongue and pallet when they speak.

  • Blowing bubbles will increases the use of the facial and jaw muscles and will help with the "w" sound as is in "when" and long "o” sound as in "hook".

  • Drinking from a straw uses the same muscles as blowing bubbles, but also gets the tongue moving and raises awareness of the pallet. The tight grip further develops the muscles in the mouth, face and jaw.

  • Kissing a mirror while wearing lipgloss and making the "mwah!" sound with their mouth gives your child the opportunity to watch what their lips and tongue look like when they make sounds.

  • Finger guides help your child notice the position of YOUR lips when you are speaking. Point to your lips when you use the specific letters they are struggling to pronounce.

  • Make eye contact when you speak with your child, to give them the opportunity to learn what mouth movements you use to make specific sounds.

In a few weeks, my granddaughter begins kindergarten. My hope is that with attention to the above strategies and future work with a speech pathologist, her challenges with speech with soon be a thing of the past. In the meantime, we will continue to support and encourage her efforts.

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