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Helping your child to love talking

Rosemarie Hayhow PhD, FRCSLT | 16.12.2016

Learning to talk is a wonderful process for parents and children and because it often happens with little apparent effort we can forget just how complex talking is. It requires thoughts, words, grammar, the right timing and volume and very precise movements of all the muscles involved in producing the words, phrases and sentences.

Young children are novice talkers and like any of us, as we practice new skills, can quite easily struggle or ‘lose it’ if there is too much else going on. Too much going on around us (distractions, noise, lots to look at) or too much going on inside us (feeling tired, unwell or anxious, excited, wanting to get it right quickly).

The following are things that many parents have found helpful.

Things that help a young child to speak fluently:

  • Shorter utterances i.e. single words or short phrases
  • Answering questions with short and simple answers
  • Reduced distractions e.g. reduced background noise & general activity, turn taking rather than competition to talk; no computer, TV or radio competing for child’s attention.
  • Talking about the here and now e.g. shared activity or shared focus of attention. This could be talking about the clothes the child is putting on / taking off, what they’re eating, what they’re making with play-dough / lego or drawing or any activities that are part of daily life.
  • Talking about a picture or something that both child and conversational partner are looking at.
  • Forced choices e.g. do you want to go out on the bikes or stay in and look at a book?
  • Any rote or familiar talking e.g. counting, colours, completing lines of story or rhymes e.g. run, run as fast as you can you can’t etc.
  • Giving a child time to formulate their response without interruptions.

A good rule of thumb to help you work out whether you are giving the child good advice or not is note whether it seems to help the child. If it helps the child speak easily then it is probably OK, if it doesn’t then don’t keep making the suggestion.

Things that make stammering more likely: the reverse of the above but worth listing:

  • Too many distractions- these can be internal as well as external. For example if a child is very excited then often fluency is reduced.
  • When the child really wants to say something and wants to say it now.
  • Talking about things that are in the past or future without any visual clues.
  • Long and grammatically complex utterances.
  • Feeling under pressure to talk, or to talk quickly.
  • Feeling unsure of how listeners will respond.
  • Talking when there’s a rush of ideas that haven’t been sorted into some order.
  • Using new words, talking at the limits of current skills.
  • Answering open questions, or when not sure of the answer that’s expected

Other points:

  • Plenty of experience of relaxed and stammer-free speaking helps children to build the motor patterns that are a part of fluent talking. If a child is stammering then the stammering pattern is being reinforced. Many children have ‘good’ and ‘difficult’ days. ‘Good’ days are great for encouraging the child to talk more and in more detail etc. On ‘difficult’ days it is better to reduce the demands and consolidate the child’s skills by providing opportunities for easy talking. This can also apply to tricky talking in an otherwise more fluent day- you can help by providing a bit of structure i.e. the things that help more fluent talking and this may, in turn, help re-establish a more fluent pattern.
  • Try not to teach your child tricks to get started. E.g. ‘take a deep breath’ can lead to a child taking breath after breath and still not be able to get started.
  • If your child seems to start talking before they know what they are going to say then it can be helpful to let them know you are happy to wait and ask them to think about what they want to say. Sometimes a child knows exactly what they want to say yet feels stuck so advice to stop and think will make it much more difficult for them.
  • A good rule of thumb to help you work out whether you are giving the child good advice or not is note whether it seems to help the child. If it helps the child speak easily then it is probably OK, if it doesn’t then don’t keep making the suggestion.
  • If your child is really struggling to speak then you might be able to help by gently offering the word.  You can acknowledge their difficulty and if possible offer some encouragement- ‘that looked like hard work- talking can be tricky when you’ve lots to say’. Try not to put your child in a situation where they will fail with talking.
  • Plenty of opportunities to talk in one to one or small groups help children build up their fluency skills.
  • Anything that increases the child’s self-confidence may also increase their fluency although children who stammer do not necessarily lack confidence.
  • Stammering is not usually an emotional problem. It is a problem of co-ordinating thinking, language and speaking. If the child feels stuck then instinctively they try to push the words out and this makes speaking more difficult. If a child has a lot of bad experiences with talking then over time they will begin to get anxious and then it becomes a problem linked to feelings. If a child is not mature enough to be able to get everything working just right for fluent talking then we need to try and keep talking a positive experience so that they can gradually learn to speak fluently in all situations without building up any fears.

Perhaps the most important thing is to enjoy talking with your child. 

Perhaps the most important thing is to enjoy talking with your child.  Talking is a highly complex skill and novice talkers can easily make mistakes as they are vulnerable to the pressures indicated above. Some children are tolerant of errors and glitches, they understand that it’s OK to make mistakes, they seem to understand that mistakes can be corrected and are a natural part of learning. Other children want to get things ‘right’ and can get cross and upset when they make mistakes- they set high standards for themselves.

modified December 2016