• James MacDonald

A Guide for Apraxia, Down syndrome, and other Late talking conditions.

This article was written by Dr. James MacDonald and shared via his yahoo group.

SPEECH CLARITY- How to help your child be understood more.

Children usually begin to speak in ways that are at first understandable to no one but very familiar persons. Such performances are not "mistakes"-- they are normal steps in the difficult process of coordinating many muscles. This process is often very difficult for children with language delays or ones with little practice talking. Until the child is a habitual communicator with words, it is very important not to discourage the child from saying words in any ways he can.

Consequently, unclear speech should not be seen as "error" but rather as natural developmental steps that you can support by showing the child the next step. Unclear speech is an attempt to do what the child physically can do at the moment. Unclear speech is like a missed attempt at a basket in basketball--and as Michael Jordan says, " I'd never be as good as I am if I had not missed over a million baskets."

Speech clarity takes a great deal of motor practice, more for some children than for others. It is critical to accept any attempts at speech at first and to not discourage a child from speaking with negative feedback or attempts to get him to do things he is not ready to do.

Unclear speech is not a mistake; it is a development.

It is essential that you do not consider your child doing something wrong when he speaks in unclear ways. Every skill develops in baby steps not in " perfect" performance. Rather than think that your child is doing something wrong when he says "irainou ai" instead of "It's raining outside," tell yourself he is not acting like an adult yet. He is doing what his biology, history and current environment has him do. Your job is to be the kind of partner who shows him how to talk next.

Why is it important? While it is eventually important for a child to speak in ways that most people understand, it is equally important not to expect or pressure the child to speak in ways he is currently not able to do. Children develop speech in three general stages.

First, the child has "self-talk" in which he makes sounds as he plays and practices muscle coordinations mainly for the sensation value. These sounds may or may not refer to real words and they may or may not be used to communicate with others. It is important for partners to respond to these early sounds so the child does more of them and so he learns that sounds will be the most effective way to communicate.

Second, the child has "family or idiosyncratic speech" which includes attempts to communicate that usually only his family understands. This speech can be considered the child's own "language" and the family's main job is to translate the child's language into theirs. This is done by simply giving the child a word in the mother tongue in response to his idiosyncratic production. In this way the child hears a new way to talk without feeling that he had done something wrong.

Third, the child then develops "conventional" speech, which are words that most of the community can understand. For language- delayed children, this stage may take years. The key is to realize that each child speaks as he can at the moment, and if partners want different speech, it is up to them to show the child what to say next and not to respond in ways that often discourage the child from talking.

What can you do? The most important thing to help a child develop clear speech is to respond to all of his speech attempts, however unclear, so that he keeps talking. If we make talking hard work for the child by asking him to repeat and repeat, or by not responding, he is likely to talk less and then get less of the practice he needs to speak more clearly. The more your child interacts with people who act like him, the clearer his speech will become.

Use the following approaches to build your child's speech clarity.

First, understand that your child's speech will come from hearing you and others talk in daily interactions. The recommendations below depend on this understanding. You and your family have hundreds of times more opportunities to help your child speak and do it more clearly than any professional can.

1. Constant social sounding. Before you worry about speech and push for words, help your child become a constant social sounder. We frequently find children making sounds more alone than with people. Why? Perhaps because we do not respond to just those little sounds that they need to practice greatly before words will emerge. Be sure to respond, imitate and play with your child's sounds so that he has frequent little sounding conversations with you.

2. Responding. Respond to all of your child's speech attempts, even if it means imitating unusual productions. Many partners find it awkward at first to imitate a child's unclear sounds, but many have found that imitation keeps the child talking more so that he has more practice. If a child stops talking all opportunity to improve speech ends. The more a child speaks interactively, regardless of the clarity, the clearer his speech will become.

3. Translating. Consider every sound or unclear word your child makes as an important word in his unique language. Regardless of how your child pronounces a word, it is an important accomplishment for him and should be supported with a word that translates his language into yours. If he says "akaba" when entering the bathtub, simply say "bathtub " clearly. Keep reminding yourself that, if your child's name is Amy, then she will speak "Amy" first. Your job is to translate it into English, or whatever your language is.

4. Matching. The more you talk with your child in ways he can try to do, the more he will talk and the more he will learn to speak as you do. Many children face so much adult language that they do not have the kinds of models they can learn from. Get into the habit of asking yourself: can my child talk in the way I am doing? If not , then reduce your speech to models he can do.

5. Being playful with sounds. Adults often take talking so seriously with language delayed children that children do not enjoy the process. Consequently, they stay away and talk less when it is seen as failure and work. Many parents have found that children talk more clearly when they treat sounds as the child's most important toy that can be exchanged back and forth as balls are exchanged when a child wants to play ball. The more you think of sounds and words as playthings, the more the child will participate and practice his speech.

6. Balancing and waiting. When you make sure that you take turns with your child and not do much more talking than he does, you will find he will learn to speak more like you. Often children will talk in the easiest and unclear ways, but when you wait silently you will find that he will speak more clearly. As long as his unclear speech gets your response, he will have no reason to say things in more difficult but possible ways.

Measurable outcomes: ( for use at home and in intervention plans)

1. The child will make new sounds and combinations of sounds.

2. The child will direct his sounds more to people than to himself and things.

3. The child will change his sounds to be closer to his partner's productions.

4. The child's speech will be clearer to his family.

5. The child's speech will be clearer to strangers.

6. The child will imitate the speech of others more closely.


You will understandably be frustrated and anxious when you do not understand your child. This often results in judgments and pressures to speak in ways his is not ready. This discourages the child from speaking at all and results in not enough practice for speaking more clearly.

Another problem is the belief that oral motor exercises outside of speech acts themselves can prepare a child to have clear speech. In over 30 years, I have not seen evidence to support this assumption. However, it is clear that the best exercise for clearer speech is highly frequent sounding practice in interactions where they are hearing partners communicate with sounds and words the child is able to do. Speech is the best practice for speech just as playing tennis is the best practice for tennis, even though some may think muscle training is necessary for both.

Another common problem occurs when we speak in long strings because a child shows he understands us-if we want a child to speak more clearly, it is necessary that he hears speech that he can do. Regardless of whether he can understand us, he will not learn to talk like us unless he frequently hears speech in pieces he can do.

Your child will learn to talk more clearly when he frequently interacts with you when you are sounding and talking in ways he can do. You are the answer.

Dr. James MacDonald


Dr James MacDonald has a wonderful book called Communicating Partners. He also has a YouTube Channel and a website and a wonderful yahoo group, which is still very active. I highly recommend you check him out!

#speech #apraxia #downsyndrome

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