Talking With Children: Speech Is a Ladder

Blog #15 in the Phonology Means Nothing and Other Astounding and Very Practical Facts about Speech Sound Disorders Blog Series

For more information about this series, see the Phonology Means Nothing Series welcome page.

By Ken Bleile, PhD
April 16, 2021

Adult speech has the power to transform the noise in a child’s world into a ladder for learning. Speech that facilitates learning holds a child’s interest, changes in response to a child’s shifts in attention, and adjusts to accommodate a child’s experiences and developmental level (Gleitman, Newport, & Gleitman, 1984; Goldstein & Schwade, 2008; Kuhl, 2004, 2007). For an infant, a toddler, or an early preschooler, not yet possessing sufficient attention skills for more structured treatment, these speech modifications form a core of treatment. For a late preschooler or a student, therapeutic speech modifications are an important part of a clinician’s repertoire. 


Parentese (formerly referred to as Motherese, because mothers’ speech was the first studied) is a primary way that caregivers teach an infant about speech and language. It is an essential part of almost all treatment approaches with infants and young children (Camarata, 2010; Miccio, 2005; Scherer & Kaiser, 2010; Warren et al., 2006). Parentese answers a caregiver question probably as old as Homo sapiens: How do I get and keep an infant’s attention? Attention is needed for a child to learn and often is difficult to obtain and maintain given an infant’s cognitive limitations (Chang & Thompson, 2011; Dore, 1986; Snow, 1984). 

Parentese requires an adult to know a child well enough to anticipate and respond to their needs and wants. The conversation topics of Parentese are those that interest a child, and modifications in intonation, syntax, and vocabulary are those needed to keep the child’s attention. Thus, a caregiver shapes the vast complexities of language into a lesson from which a child can learn.

Verbal tricks of Parentese that caregivers use to capture and hold an infant’s flickering attention include:

•  Higher than usual pitch

•  Talking about shared perceptions

•  Exaggerated intonation

•  Use of repetitions

•  Calling attention to objects

Parentese and Families

Parentese comes naturally to most caregivers. However, situations arise when a family may have difficulties using Parentese spontaneously. Three I have encountered frequently include:

Baby Talk: Some families confuse Parentese with baby talk. When this occurs, every time a clinician says Parentese, they picture you asking them to say gee gee and gaa gaa to their child and that you are asking them to talk in a way they find embarrassing. They may also hold the belief that an infant will benefit more from an adult speaking to them in full, complete sentences.  

The Silent Infant: A different challenge may arise if an infant is silent, perhaps unable to vocalize or interact extensively for medical reasons or developmental delay. Families may limit their interactions with a silent infant, even in the face of encouragement from hospital staff, believing the child does not benefit from the contact.

Family Stress: A family under severe chronic stress may limit their time with an infant or may be too distracted to interact in a way that promotes learning. Chronic severe stress can have neurological consequences for both caregivers and infants, as well as being a risk factor for future educational and social challenges (Harden, 2015; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014).

Facilitative Talk

Parentese changes as a child develops, adjusting to fit a child’s cognitive level and greater experience with language. Facilitative talk is an advanced form of Parentese for use with a toddler or an early preschooler (2;0 to approximately 3;6) too young to benefit from direct instruction. Common facilitative talk techniques include:

Strategic Errors: A strategic error is an adult-made error that focuses a child on communication. To give a speech example, if a child pronounces word-initial [t] as [d] during play, the caregiver or clinician might point to a doll’s toe and say, Doe. The hoped-for response is that the child looks confused or laughs and, perhaps, attempts to say the word with an initial [t].

Modeling: Modeling, as the name suggests, provides a child an example (a model) of the behavior a caregiver wants a child to learn.

Bombardment: Bombardment increases the relative frequency of a speech element. The logic behind bombardment is that a child tends to learn earlier what they hear more often.

Requests for Confirmation or Clarification: Requests for confirmation or clarification focus a child’s attention on the purpose of speech, which is to communicate. The technique’s value lies in focusing a child on speech to communicate a message from one person to another.

Parallel talk: Parallel talk provides a child words and sentences to describe either their activities or aspects of the environment to which the child is attending. Parallel talk supports the well-known truth that a child is more likely to acquire aspects of language that refer to things and actions they find interesting.

Expansions: Expansions "fill in the missing parts" in a child's utterances.

Modified facilitative talk is facilitative talk with a gentle speech production nudge provided by occasional questions, sentence completions, and requests to imitate. Whereas facilitative talk occurs naturally in families, modified facilitative talk are a clinician’s therapy tools.

Therapy Talk

Therapy talk is a compilation of treatment techniques to promote speech and speech awareness in late preschoolers through adults. Unlike Parentese, which mirrors what caregivers do naturally, clinicians developed therapy talk. Think of therapy talk as the basic kitchen equipment of the clinical craft, its spoons, forks, knives, and ladles. They are compatible with almost any treatment approach for late preschoolers and students and are useful for introducing a treatment sound, promoting speech awareness, reminding a child of a correct pronunciation, practicing a motor skill, and encouraging generalization. Therapy talk includes:

Minimal pairs: Alternates production of a treatment sound with rhyming sounds, providing speech practice and promoting phonological awareness.

Deletions: Adds and removes a treatment sound from a word, providing speech practice and promoting phonological awareness.

Self-corrections: Repeats words with treatment sound at least three times without clinician feedback, providing speech practice and promoting self-monitoring and generalization.

Old way/new way: Alternates former and present pronunciation of a treatment sound, providing speech practice and promoting self-awareness and positive feelings about speech progress.

Similar sounds: Alternates between a treatment sound and a similar sound in a child’s phonetic repertoire, providing speech practice differentiating between two similar sounds.


Camarata, S. (2010). Naturalistic intervention for speech intelligibility and speech accuracy. In Williams, L., McLeod, S., & McCauley, R.J. (Eds.), Interventions for speech sound disorders in children (pp. 381–405). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Chang, R., & Thompson, N. (2011). Whines, cries, and Parentese: Their relative power to distract. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 5, 131–141.

Dore, J. (1986). The development of conversational competence. In R. Schiefelbusch (Ed.), Language competence: Assessment and intervention (pp. 3–59). San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.

Gleitman, L., Newport, E., & Gleitman, H. (1984). The current status of the Parentese hypothesis. Journal of Child Language, 11, 43–79.

Goldstein, M., & Schwade, J. (2008). Social feedback to infants' babbling facilitates rapid phonological learning. Psychological Science, 19, 515–523.

Harden, B. J. (2015). Services for families of infants and toddlers experiencing trauma: A research-to-practice brief. Brief prepared for the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 5, 831–843.

Kuhl, P. (2007). Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain? Developmental Science, 10, 110–120.

Miccio, A. W. (2005). A treatment program for enhancing stimulability. In A. G. Kamhi & K. E. Pollock (Eds.), Phonological disorders in children: Clinical decision making in assessment and intervention (pp. 163-173). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2014). Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain (Working Paper 3). Retrieved from

Scherer, N., & Kaiser, A. (2010). Enhanced milieu teaching with phonological emphasis for children with cleft lip and palate. In Williams, L., McLeod, S., & McCauley, R.J. (Eds.), Interventions for speech sound disorders in children (pp. 427–452). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Snow, C. (1984). Parent-child interaction and the development of communicative ability. In R. Schiefelbusch & J. Pickar (Eds.), The acquisition of communication competence (pp. 69–108). Baltimore, MD: University Park Press.

Warren, S., Bredin-Oja, Escalante, M., Finestack, L, Fey, M., & Brady, N. (2006). Responsivity education/prelinguistic milieu teaching. In R. McCauley & M. Fey (Eds), Treatment of language disorders in children (pp. 47–76). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.