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Speech is a foundation for life. We use speech in a variety of ways from asking for directions to expressing our feelings and everything in-between. Children with Down syndrome struggle with learning to speak, but can and will eventually learn to communicate. Here are six tips to encourage your child’s speech.

Children with Down syndrome frequently begin to use single words between the ages of two and three, but the age of the first word varies. Also, the first true word may be signed, not spoken. Most children with Down syndrome communicate from birth through crying, looking and gesturing. They have the desire to communicate and learn that crying or making sounds can affect their environment and bring them help, play, and attention. Many children with Down syndrome understand the relationship between a word and a concept by 10-12 months of age. However, at that age, a child generally does not have sufficient neurological and motor skills developed to be able to speak. That’s why it is important to provide another system so that the child can communicate and learn language before they are able to speak.1

1. Nursery Rhymes and Songs

Nursery Rhymes and songs are fun and interactive. They tend to have catchy lyrics and tunes with repetitive words. This gives your child the opportunity to learn in a different way then by just using speech and since we all learn differently, a variety of ways will definitely encourage speech.

2. Reading books to them nightly

Reading has so many benefits you just can’t ever go wrong with a good book. It helps them to use their imagination, pick up new vocabulary terms, learn about expressive voices, ask questions, and so much more. Whether they have to read the same book every night or you mix it up with different books all the time, reading is an excellent way to encourage speech.

3. Gross motor or motor imitation–imitation starts at the hands first before the mouth

There are many studies that have been done about the benefits of movement and learning. In the book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen, he discusses how movement helps to increase learning in children with special needs.

Many teachers have found that programs that include movement help learners with special needs. Several hypotheses may explain this phenomenon. Many special-needs learners are stuck in counterproductive mental states, and movement is a quick way to change them. Second, movements, such as those involved in playing active games, will activate the brain across a wide variety of areas. It may be the stimulation of those neural networks that helps trigger some learning. For other students, it may be the rise in energy, the increased blood flow, and the amines that put them in a better mood to think and recall. Some routines that call for slower movement can do the reverse, calming down students who are overactive, hence supporting a state of concentration.

A study by Reynolds and colleagues (2003) found that children with dyslexia were helped by a movement program. Those in the intervention group showed significantly greater improvement in dexterity, reading, verbal fluency, and semantic fluency than did the control group. The exercising group also made substantial gains on national standardized tests of reading, writing, and comprehension in comparison with students in the previous year.2

4. Vocal play with animal sounds, vehicle sounds, etc…

Using sounds seems to be a natural part of speaking. Sounds become words, words become sentences, and sentences become stories and an overall ability to communicate with the world.

5. Praise for any verbal attempts or word approximations (“mo” for “more”)

It is no secret that children thrive with praise. Speech goals are not unlike any other goal. At first sounds start out as an approximation of a word, then we work on honing those sounds and with time they become more exact. If your child is struggling to speak at all, we need to praise them for the sounds/ words they do make. This will help to encourage your child to make more sounds and hopefully words. Now we are not necessarily saying praise incorrect sounds your child makes, but to encourage their strides toward improving their sounds, wherever they are in their goals.

6. Be consistent in setting up your family daily routine to allow for opportunities to use language (daily when opening the car door to go places, practice simple words like “out” “open” “go” and make sure you model and try to get the child to imitate each time. Accept any vocalization of imitation or attempt)

Think of it as becoming a narrator to your door. Describe what you are doing and if your child repeats any of your words or tries to use their own to describe the situation then make sure to praise their efforts. This is also a chance to get your child to imitate what you are saying. Using the example above, while getting in the car your conversation could go something like this:

Parent: Okay bud, let’s go run our errands? Can you say errands?
Child: (child uses an approximation of the word errands)
Parents: That is so good. Do you like to run errands?
Child: (child nods)
Parent: Okay, let’s open the door. Can you say open?
Child: (child uses an approximation of the word open)

Conversation continues in a like manner.

We hope these tips will help you to find some new and useful ideas in encouraging speech. We know some days will feel like absolutely no progress has been made and may feel like you are backsliding, but other days you will see that progress and know how much all the work was worth to get there and you can both celebrate.

Did we miss anything? What has helped your child?


Further Reading:
1. Speech and Language Therapy, National Down Syndrome Society
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