When you don’t understand a child’s speech

Some children are so difficult to understand that even their parents have trouble understanding them. They may ask “What can I do when I don’t understand my child’s speech?”

It may help to ask your child to repeat what they said. You can say “I didn’t understand. Tell me again, please.” This gives you another chance to hear the message. If you understood part of it the first time, you can repeat the part that you understood to your child and pause for them to continue. If you did not understand a single word the first time, you can still ask for a repetition. Watch your child carefully to catch any gestures or facial expressions that may give you clues to help figure out what they mean. If you still do not understand, ask your child to show you. They can take you to something to support their communication, or draw or gesture part of the message to help you understand. Having pictures of some of the things your child often talks about may also help.

Some children have unusual ways of making themselves understood. One little boy I know cannot name some objects, but he can say all of his colours. His parents encourage him to tell them the colour of the object he is asking for! Encourage your child to use whatever they can to tell you their message. Tell other people they spend time with what works for them. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a chart saying what the child says or does, what it means, and how you should respond to it.

Once you do understand, always repeat the message slowly and clearly, so that they hear the correct way of saying it. Don’t ask children to repeat your correction – just model it for them to hear. Most children find it frustrating to be constantly asked to repeat.

It is important for children to have lots of success communicating. It may be helpful to play with toys selected to make what they say more obvious. For example, puzzles with one picture per piece make it easier to figure out what a child is saying. Songs, nursery rhymes and simple books can also provide a chance to speak without the pressure of making a message understood. To encourage your child to sing along, sing slowly and use lots of gestures. To encourage a child to participate in a familiar nursery rhyme or book, you can stop every so often and let them say the next word.

Children do get easier and easier to understand with time, but if you understand less than 50% of what they say by age 2, 75% by age 3 or 100% by age 4 (although they may still make some errors with later-developing sounds such as “s”. “r” or “th”), please consider consulting a Speech-Language Pathologist.

If you live in or near Winnipeg, Manitoba, we at SpeechWorks Inc. would be happy to help! SpeechWorks Inc.  provides services in English and French for children and adults to help with speech, language, swallowing and memory.

3 comments on “When you don’t understand a child’s speech”:

  1. Thank you so much Stephanie! You would so proud of Oscar; his speech has made a huge turn for the better this summer. He took his letter into school and told his teacher “cause I had such an awesome speech teacher in Winnipeg I don’t think I need help anymore!” Made me smile and I thought you would like that!

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