5 tips to support children with unclear speech


Most early years settings have children attending with unclear speech. To support children in your day-to-day role, you can use something simple like the Every Child a Talker (ECAT) Child Monitoring Tool or the Universally Speaking booklet from The Communication Trust. Tools like these will give information on the typical development of speech sounds in children so you are in a good position to provide knowledgeable care.

If there is a delay, bear in mind that parents might not share your concerns as they have “tuned in” to their child’s speech and they also might not be aware of how developed their child’s speech should be for their age.  As a key worker, you should work closely with parents to help support a child’s speech development.

There are also numerous support agencies you can turn to, such as your local Speech and Language Therapy department, who are well placed to provide guidance on any general concerns you may have. There is also a national communication charity called ICAN, which has a useful free phone or email enquiry service you can use too.

So, what can you do to help? Here are 5 tips that you can use in your own setting:

1. Don’t pretend to understand, however uncomfortable you might feel

Ask the child to show you what they mean and repeat back any words or phrases you have understood. To keep the child’s confidence levels high, take the blame yourself if you really can’t understand.  For example:

“I’m sorry, it’s really noisy and I can’t hear”

“I’m sorry,  my ears aren’t working properly today”

Make sure you come back to the child at some point to ask them to tell you again and ask another member of staff to be within ear shot to help out.  A home/setting link book can be an invaluable tool when you have a child with unclear speech.  The parent can write brief notes of anything out of the ordinary that’s happened, so you have some clues.

Friendly Child Listening To Tin Can Phone
Developing a child’s listening skills is an important part of supporting their ability to communicate

2. Arrange sound listening games

Keep things fun with regular, short, small group sessions during listening games.  You’ll be the Speech and Language Therapist’s best friend if you can improve a child’s listening and sound discrimination skills whilst they spend time at the setting, as they’ll be more receptive to therapy.  The government’s Phase One activities to improve a child’s listening skills (specifically Aspects 1,2 and 3) are really useful if you need some inspirational ideas.

3. Don’t correct, model

Never correct a child’s speech, they aren’t being lazy; if they could speak clearly they would!  Instead, repeat or model back the correct version but do not ask them to repeat it.  For example:

“I saw a tat”

“ Oh, you saw a cat”

Slightly over-emphasise the correct sound but make sure the conversation doesn’t become stilted.

 4. Ditch the dummy and bottle!

Your local Speech and Language Therapy department will probably have a leaflet or poster you can give routinely to all parents to provide information on the link between prolonged use of dummies /bottles and the impact this can have on a child’s developing speech.  Try speaking with your index finger in your mouth and you’ll see what I mean!

5. Use the child’s interests and have fun

Try to have 5 minutes of quality time with the child during each session, where you share an activity they really enjoy.   If possible, choose a quieter area of the setting so you can really tune in to what they are saying and give the child your full attention.

About the author

meKathryn is a specialist early years teacher and trainer who has worked with children for nearly 25 years, including 10 years as an Area SENCO. She is a licensed Tutor for ICAN Talk Boost as well as an ELKLAN Speech and Language Trainer.  She regularly writes and delivers courses for early years practitioners on all aspects of SEN.  You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynstinton2 or visit her website for more information.


One thought on “5 tips to support children with unclear speech

  • October 31, 2017 at 1:48 am

    I liked that you talked about how you can use your child’s interest to help them speak better. My little nephew has speech issues. He loves superheroes and since a lot of them have odd names it might be smart for us to use them to help him learn how to pronounce them.


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