Facilitating First Words

Imitation is an important skill when learning to talk. As speech therapists, we use imitation to teach our children to use new words and make new sounds. However, imitation is a learned skill and not all children get it right away. Parents get frustrated when their child is not talking and can be heard repeating over and over again, “Say…” However, we cannot force our children to speak. DeThorne, et al. (2009) discussed six methods to elicit speech development for children who are not imitating. All six methods are considered “evidenced-based practice,” meaning there is research that confirms that the method works. Below is a list of the six methods and ideas to help facilitate imitation:


1)      Provide access to Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

  • Simple sign language (i.e., the signs for “more” and “open”)
  • Pictures – in our EIC groups, we use pictures during snack so that our kids can request and pictures to help transition between rooms/activities (a picture of the gym to indicate gross motor play time)


2)      Minimize pressure to speak

  • Avoid direct requests to imitate
  •  Follow the child’s lead
  • Play with puppets


3)      Imitate the child

  • Imitate their sounds (babble) and non-verbal actions (anything from yawns to banging on the table)
  • Assign meaning to their vocalizations: as they say “bababa” show them a ball


4)      Utilize exaggerated intonation and slowed tempo

  • “More” can be modeled with a rising intonation to indicate a request
  • Use nursery rhymes with pauses so that your child can be tempted to fill in the words (“Row row row your…”)


5)      Augment auditory, visual, tactile, and proprioceptive feedback

  • Tap your top lip when using the sound for “t” to signify your tongue position or tap your throat for “k” and “g” sounds
  • Use echoes through a tube to amplify sounds or a mirror to emphasize mouth position


6)      Avoid emphasis on nonspeech-like articulator movements: focus on function

  • Use a kazoo to elicit the “m” sound, with closed lips and voice
  • Use fun sounds during play, like blowing raspberries as a car motor


DeThorne, L.S., Johnson, C.J., Walder, L., & Mahurin-Smith, J. (2009). When “simon says” doesn’t work: Alternatives to imitation for facilitating early speech development. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18, 133-145.


– Jenny Graham, MA, CCC-SLP


One Response to Facilitating First Words

  1. These are great strategies! I especially like strategy #2 as a reminder to get away from “say ___” commands which just put young children on-the-spot. I agree that following the child’s lead, imitating him, and using pauses (strategy #4) really work!

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