If your child needs to improve a certain speech sound–whether it’s /s/, /r/, /l/, or something else–you likely know first-hand that it can be tough to motivate children to practice their speech. I mean, what kid would prefer to sit and say their target sounds versus playing with toys or heading outside? Not many!
It's hard to overstate how important regular home practice is to helping your child reach their speech goals. But the key to successful practice is that it can’t simply consist of your child saying sounds over and over. That would become tiring for anyone–not to mention boring.
Read on for five helpful tips you can use to make speech sound practice less of a headache for you and your child. I can’t guarantee it, but it's likely you'll end up having some actual fun, too!
1. Pick the right activity to do during practice.
No child wants to sit down and focus on practicing their target sound for 20 minutes straight. That’s why it’s important to find an activity that helps keep practice engaging.
Think about what your child enjoys. Do they like making crafts or playing outside? Do they prefer being physical–kicking a ball, trying out yoga poses? Do they get super competitive when playing a game with you? These are clues as to what may work well for your kiddo during speech practice.
Use whatever your child likes to your advantage! Before each step of their craft, kick of the ball, or turn of the game, have your child practice a word or two. If they like to play outside, talk about different things you see around you that use their target sound. Or have your child say a word as they swing, or draw items that start with their sound using sidewalk chalk.
The beauty of speech practice is that it doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. As long as your child is motivated and practicing their sounds–that’s all that matters!
2. Change it up!
With all that being said, make sure you rotate the types of activities your child does during practice. Some children get tired of doing the same thing over and over. So think of a few different activities your child enjoys for practice throughout the week. This will help keep speech sound practice from becoming stale or predictable.
As you experiment with different activities, some will likely prove to be more engaging for your child than others. And that’s OK! Aim to end up with three to five options that keep your child excited about practicing, and rotate those throughout the week.
Think of speech practice as the perfect time to try out new activities with your child. Let’s say they’re interested in learning to bake with you. Get in the kitchen together and practice as you mix up a batch of cookies! There’s no right or wrong place to practice speech sounds.
3. Practice for small amounts of time.
One tip that may make things easier is keeping practice limited to small chunks of time. Tell your child upfront that you’re only going to practice for 5 minutes. This may relieve some of their stress and make them more willing to participate. And several 5-minute increments really add up!
Try setting a timer if this helps them. A visual timer that’s easy to see may be even better for younger children. If they start getting antsy during practice, you can encourage them: “Oh look, you only have 2 minutes left! We’re almost there!”
Switch up this concept by practicing at a variety of times during the day. Maybe you practice sounds with your child during every commercial break of their favorite TV show. Or you practice in the car on the way to the grocery store.
In all of these scenarios, your child will know exactly how much practice is expected and will likely feel less frustrated as a result.
4. Give rewards.
Some kiddos work really well when they know an incentive is involved. There’s no shame in that! Everyone needs a little extra motivation sometimes.
The trick here is to find a reward that’s easy to use often. If you tell your child they’ll get to pick out a toy at the store if they practice their sounds, they may begin to expect that every time. Probably a habit you don’t want to start!
Try some of these ideas for easy–but motivating–rewards:
Make a sticker chart. Each day your child completes their speech practice, they place a sticker on the calendar. At the end of the week, they can be rewarded with a trip to the ice cream shop or an outing to the park.
Let your child pick what’s for dinner or dessert after completing their practice. (Give them a few grownup-approved options to choose from!)
When your child finishes their speech homework, you can let them trade in a chore they would typically have to do.
A bit of extra screen time may be a popular reward!
Rewards don’t have to be anything big or elaborate. Just spend some time thinking about what your child would enjoy most. This is bound to make speech practice more exciting!
5. If your child’s frustrated, stick with simple tasks.
This is a tip I share with families of little ones working on speech production: If your child tends to get frustrated with speech practice and you aren’t sure what to do, start with tasks that your child finds easy. Let’s say the /s/ sound is challenging for them, but they’re great at /l/. Although they may not need to practice that sound, spend some time saying /l/ words together.
Praise your child and cheer them on for all their correct /l/ productions. The goal is to make speech practice as positive as possible, and exercises like this will build your child’s confidence.
After spending some time on easier words, move on to your child’s real target sounds. They’ll likely be more confident in these tasks once they’ve had some positive experiences with speech practice.
When to reach out for speech therapy help
Practicing speech production at home is so important for kids who are struggling in this area. It’s smart to spend time working with your kiddo to help them improve.
However, there are some clear signs that it’s time to contact a speech-language pathologist. Do any of these apply to your child?
Their speech is not understood by others at least 80% of the time.
Your child is not meeting age-expected speech production milestones.
Your child doesn’t seem to be rapidly improving in their speech production every few months.
If you think your child might benefit from speech therapy, reach out to your pediatrician or a speech therapist. A pediatrician can write a referral for speech therapy. If you’d like to go straight to the source and start getting questions answered by a speech therapist, don’t hesitate! Speech therapists are always happy to speak with families to determine if an evaluation is needed. If your child needs support, the earlier they get started, the better.