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!
Thanks you for sharing the tips. My one year old granddaugher doesn’t talk. She communicates fine but without words (or few words). I can use some of the tips you mentioned to help her develop her speech.
I hope these tips make a difference for you, Krista! It makes me happy to see that others might benefit from what we’ve learned through our speech journey.
Was it because he just refused to say them or he didn’t know? Our daughter is raised at home and will be entering preschool soon enough but we have never considered her delayed because she can understand concepts, words and phrases. She knows how to say a variety of things but would rather not say them unless necessary. We often just talk to her but not ask questions or if we do, it’s more like where are you shoes?, get your shoes. And she knows what we’re talking about.
I’m so glad to have found this because my daughter is just two and I don’t want to be thinking she’s at a good rate when she’s actually behind other kids.
liz @ j for joiner
Little Man understood and could follow directions, but rarely talked. I had heard him on rare occasion say hi or dad (probably no more than a handful of times in his two years of life). The only words I heard him consistently say were “no” and “go”. As for whether it was just refusal vs. really not knowing how to talk…I think it was a combination of the two for him. One thing I learned is that it’s possible to have a delay for expressive language (talking) even if the child’s receptive (comprehension) is good. If you are in doubt with your daughter, I’d run your thoughts by your pediatrician and get her tested, just to see. I was reluctant at first to test Little Man because I thought he’d just grow into his speech in time (and maybe he would have), but I’m so grateful for the resources we’ve found through the early intervention program.
Great summary! As a pediatric speech-language pathologist myself, I am so happy that these practices made a big difference for you and your family. Thanks for the post 🙂
And I’m glad to hear you agree with these tips. They definitely made a difference for me, but it’s good to hear from an unbiased source that they’re solid advice. Thanks for reading!
Morgan @ Morgan Manages Mommyhood
THANK YOU for these tips. My son will be 2 next month, and while he has a handful of words, I know that he’s not at the recommended level. I don’t think he’s behind enough to qualify for therapy yet, but these tips will be SUCH a help.
Thank you for this! The link for visual cues is no longer active. What would you suggest we search? “Visual cues” is obviously a broad search and even “speech visual cues” leads to resources for tongue and teeth placement pictures. Thanks for any help you can provide!
Thanks for letting me know that the link was dead. I hate when good resources get removed! I found another site that has some helpful info and pictures, so I’ve updated the link to go to that site. Good luck!
My daughter is 3.4 and was speech delayed. She is now talking and is about 60-70 percent intelligible to outsiders. Good lord willing, everything will be okay, but I’m worried about her inquisitive nature. Outside of what and where questions, she has trouble with why, how, and when type questions, both asking and answering. How was your son with this? Did he pick this up later? I just still have so many worries.
Thanks and god bless
I’m glad to hear that your daughter is making progress with speech! I know that it was a frustrating time for me as a mom, and I was so relieved when my Little Man started showing some real progress. As for questioning, I wouldn’t worry too much. I call 4 years old the year of “WHY.” That’s when both of my older kids started really asking those higher level questions. Give her a few months, and if you’re really concerned, you can always ask her pediatrician if she’s developmentally on track. Best wishes!
Thanks for this post. My 2 year old is just starting her speech therapy journey. I can’t help but think I am partially responsible for her late talking, did you ever feel that way?
I hear you! It’s so easy to feel like we are responsible for ALL of our children’s struggles. But the fact that you’re the type of parent that has pursued speech therapy for your daughter and is searching the internet for resources to help tells me that you’re not neglecting your daughter’s needs at all. On the contrary, she’s lucky to have a mama who is looking out for her so well. Some kids just take longer to develop in certain areas and sometimes they come with challenges that we didn’t cause. That’s okay. I’ve learned that I can’t define my worth as a parent by my children’s performance. Just love ’em!
Please add my name to the resounding chorus of THANKS! Soooo Happy for your Little Man yay! It’s encouraging, especially when one is at their wits end, that there’s always hope for major breakthroughs. Will certainly be putting these helpful tips to good use. Peace & blessings!
I’m glad I could give you some hope. Don’t give up! Really, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in parenting it’s that sometimes you can’t rush a child to develop faster than he/she is ready. I hope these tips help nudge your kiddo in the right direction though! Best wishes!
After your son start talk and went to school is he in a normal classes with any kid in his age or like a special needs ? I mean is any child has delay speech gonna effect him all his school years ?
My son has been in mainstream classes since Kindergarten (he’s now in 3rd grade), and he is doing just fine! You’d never know he had a speech delay now.
Hi, I am a SLP and I enjoyed reading the tips you learned from your son’s speech therapist. It’s really helpful to hear a parent’s perspective on what helped you the most. Sometimes we (as speech therapists) have so much advice to share with parents that it’s helpful to know what advice helps parents the most and to also see what questions they have. If you are interested in more helpful and free resources on this topic, my schooled in speech website is dedicated to helping parents help their child with speech and language at home. That’s so great to hear that your son made such great progress with his speech!
Such helpful information! The first tip about not asking so many questions feels like it could be tough, but I can see how it’s so important!!