Are you worried your toddler isn’t speaking enough yet? Try these simple, research-based strategies from my son’s speech therapist to encourage late talkers.
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When my son was two years old, he could say two words: NO and GO. Any time we tried to get him to say anything else, he just refused.
“Can you say hi?” I would prompt when we would meet someone new.
“No,” he would respond matter-of-factly.
He’s always been a strong-willed little boy. He’s not one to be pushed into something before he’s ready, so I didn’t know if I should be concerned about his speech or not. He understood everything I said and could follow commands. He just wouldn’t verbally express himself. We were stuck in a world of grunts, pointing, and unintelligible whining.
The more I researched, however, the more I realized that he really wasn’t meeting the basic speech milestones for his age. After discussing it with our pediatrician, my husband and I decided to get him tested by our school district’s early intervention program to see if he qualified for speech therapy.
I am so grateful that there are resources to help kids like my son who need a little extra help getting all those awesome ideas in their heads to come out of their mouths. A speech therapist started coming to our house twice a month, and I loved watching her work with him.
I also learned a lot of strategies I could use at home to encourage his speech. Because as much as I was thrilled with the progress she made with my son, she rightly pointed out that she was only with him a couple hours a month, and I could make a much bigger impact than the speech therapist could if I would take the strategies she taught me and use them all month long.
I’ve learned a ton as we’ve gone through this speech adventure, and I thought I’d share a few of the tips that have been most effective in helping Little Man learn to talk.
The BEST tips I learned from my son’s speech therapist:
Tip #1 – STOP asking so many questions
Kids, especially those who are already self-conscious about their speech, don’t want to be on a quiz show all day. I used to ask my son questions ALL.THE. TIME.
“Can you say ball?”
“What is on your feet?”
It’s okay to ask some questions, but focus instead on having authentic (albeit one-sided) conversation, and prompt your child to talk in an empowering way.
One of my favorite things I learned from the speech therapist was to say “You can say _____” rather than asking it as a question.
For example, if my son wanted milk, she taught me to say, “You want milk? You can say…milk.”
It may seem like a small change, but stating that it is possible for them to say words is important encouragement for those reluctant speakers.
Tip #2 – Always validate your child’s effort to speak
I wanted so much for my son to be able to speak well that it was tempting to correct all of his mispronunciations. However, I learned that it’s super important to keep your child’s confidence high if you want them to keep trying.
My son’s therapist taught me to use the phrase “good try” as a response to his language attempts.
Even if it sounded nothing like what I was trying to get him to say, I said “good try” or I found another specific thing I could praise. This way, he was getting praised for putting forth the effort, even when the speech goal wasn’t achieved.
Tip #3 – Use visual cues to emphasize proper sounds
My son struggled with mixing up sounds a lot. To help with this, his speech therapist would subtly add visual cues to help him identify the right sound.
Adding visual and kinesthetic cues helps kids to not only hear the sounds, but to see and feel them, too.
Here are some of the signals we use the most:
M: draw your index finger across your closed lips (like you’re wiping something away)
P: Starting with a closed fist, pop your fingers open (like popcorn!)
N: Put your index finger on the side of your nose (like Santa going up the chimney)
T: Tap your teeth (or your upper lip) with your index finger.
Tip #4: Use sign language
I started teaching my son sign language starting at about nine months, but by the time he started signing back to me at eighteen months I was worried that encouraging signing would hinder his speech development.
Six months later, when I brought up that concern with his speech therapist, she told me that signing is actually really good for speech delayed kids because it lessens their frustration and encourages them to want to communicate more.
She told me that usually kids start out signing, then will sign and say the word (still using the sign to make sure they are understood), and then the sign will drop off completely. (And apparently she knows her stuff because it happened exactly as she said!)
I wish I had known this earlier. If I had, I would have done a lot more signing with Little Man during those months, and I think we would have had fewer meltdowns…maybe.
One of my favorite resources for signing is the Signing Time video series. There are a bunch of different videos that teach various signs through fun music and stories. I’ve now taught all three of my kids sign language as babies and toddlers, and it was so helpful!
Tip #5: Play simple games that require repeating a few simple words over and over
Our speech therapist would give me “homework” to do with my son. We’d pick a couple of words to focus on, and then I’d make it a point to create opportunities to use those words during the week. Pairs of opposites work really well for this.
For example: If you want to focus on “stop” and “go” for the week, take some time each day to play games with your child that highlight those words. We would play Red Light, Green Light, but simplify it to “stop” and “go”. Another day, we would drive cars around on the floor and we would have the cars “stop” and “go” on demand. It doesn’t really matter what you do, just choose a couple of simple words to say over and over again while you play.
The more times your child hears the words in a variety of contexts, the more prepared they will be use to use those words themselves.
Tip #6: READ, READ, READ
There are approximately 562 million reasons that it’s SUPER important to read to kids. That’s not news, but here’s an interesting fact:
The average child’s vocabulary when he starts school is roughly 5000 words. This means that between the ages of one and five, children learn (on average) approximately 3.5 words every day. (hanen.org)
The more words kids hear from a live person (TV doesn’t count, darn it), the more easily they will acquire speech. Reading is a FUN way to expose toddlers to a lot of new words that they may or may not be familiar with.
So, read them their favorite book over and over, go to the library and pick out some new ones, and snuggle up in a blanket fort together to read. Whatever makes it fun for both of you.
Just try to read something together every day.
It’s been a year and a half since we started this speech journey, and Little Man has made SO much progress. He now speaks in complete sentences and is able to express just about anything he wants to. He’s still working on pronunciation, but he’s understandable 80-90% of the time. And as much as sometimes I’d like him to STOP talking for a moment, I’m constantly reminded of how grateful I am that he can talk now. So I’ll put up with all the “whys” because it means that all that we’ve done the past year and a half has worked.
P.S. – If you want an AWESOME book about encouraging late talkers, I recommend It Takes Two to Talk: A Practical Guide For Parents of Children With Language Delays by
UPDATE: My son is now seven years old and you would never know that he was speech delayed. He is excelling in school and communicates well with peers and adults. So, if you’re worrying about your speech-delayed child, have hope! Utilize the resources available to you, interact with your child a lot, and be patient. You’ll likely look back in a few years and be amazed at how far they’ve come.
Do you have a late talker? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!