How to communicate successfully with children with unclear speech

Both Helen and I specialise in working with children with phonological or speech sound production difficulties.  According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 8-9% of younger children have a speech sound disorder and by the age of 6, roughly 5% of children have a noticeable speech disorder.  So waiting at the school gates, being in a school environment or being with children means you are quite likely to meet and talk to children with speech difficulties.

speech2At the mild end this may be a child using a /t/ instead of a /c,k/. So they would call a ‘cat’ a ‘tat’ and a ‘book’ a ‘boot’.  If you are talking to a child making these sorts of errors, hopefully you can still understand them or, if not, have a good idea what they mean, even if you miss a word or two.  However some of the children we work with may only have a b and d and a few vowel sounds.

Speech difficulties can persist through into teenage years and occasionally into adulthood.  I have the pleasure of working with children between the ages of 2-11 with very severe speech disorders where therapy is concentrating on vocalising on demand and then trying to make sounds.  Words can take a long time.  These children will normally also be using an alternative form of communication as well, for example signing or communications aids.

I have met many children who become reluctant to talk, especially to strangers, as they have had bad experiences in the past.  They may have been upset when they weren’t understood or someone may have made a joke about the way they spoke.  It’s very hard to keep trying when people don’t understand you.  However, the positive side is seeing these children with adults who try a bit harder.  Seeing the delight on a child’s face when they realise the teachers in their new school sign, so they can talk to everyone.  It might be as simple as a stranger taking the time to really talk to them.  These experiences can build their confidence back up.  There are many simple things anybody can do to successfully talk to children with unclear speech.

  1. Show them you are listening

We all know how hard it is to talk to someone who isn’t really listening, or doing something else at the same time.  If you can, give your full attention.  If appropriate, get down to the child’s eye level, look at them when they speak, and listen.  Don’t worry if you aren’t understanding every word, it’s more important to show them you want to talk and that you are listening.

  1. Repeat back

If you are finding it hard to understand the whole sentence, repeat back the words you have understood.  This shows that you are trying and gives the child a chance to repeat their message.   Some children are very good at explaining in a different way or using a different word to help you.

  1. Show me!

This works well with younger children who are more likely to be talking about something in the room! If you are struggling to understand the critical word, ask them to show you or take you to it.

  1. Offer choices

This is another good tip with younger children.  Try offering the child two options.  In this way they can just say one simple word, but still communicate what they want.  This can also help stop the child getting frustrated.

  1. Don’t presume

Just because a child has a speech sound difficulty doesn’t necessarily mean they have a hearing difficulty or that they don’t understand you.  Don’t shout, it’s not going to help.   Also don’t talk for them and try and fill in.  Give them time to talk.

  1. Encourage gestures (hopefully not any rude ones!)

We all naturally move our hands and arms when talking to emphasise certain words; admittedly some of us more than others.  If you are a parent or someone who works with a child regularly, encouraging them to make gestures or natural signs can help. For example you can point at your body if you are talking about yourself or you can mime actions like swimming or writing.  If you would like more information on this you can read our post here

  1. Don’t correct

Few things will stop a child wanting to talk to you more than constantly correcting the way they talk.  Rather than getting them to repeat words, just repeat back to them the correct production.  For example,

Child: “ta, ta me tee ta!”  (cat, cat, me see cat)

Adult: “Oh yes, I see the cat too”

  1. Admit you can’t understand.

If you are really finding it hard, the child has repeated the word a number of times and they can’t show you, don’t be afraid to say ‘sorry’, but you can’t get that word right now.  This way you have still acknowledged the child but not implied that they have done anything wrong.  You need to be very careful of agreeing or saying ok when you don’t understand as this may be an inappropriate response and the child will probably know.  Or you might have just agreed to take them to Legoland!

Just try your best! Showing the child you are interested in what they have to say and that you are trying to understand is the most important part of any interaction.  If your child has difficulties with their speech you need to get an assessment from a Speech and Language Therapist.  If you would like some more specific tips to try at home, you can read our post here.

Elizabeth Gunner SpeechBlogUK


  1. Fabulous post and so very useful for many parents and teachers. Our daughter has DS, sometimes telegraphic speech and some of the missing ends of words you describe. I’m pleased we are doing most of the above and using Makaton too. Off to share with others parents. H

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