Why Speech Therapists Don’t Say “Say…{word}” (and parents shouldn’t either!)

By: Paula Johnson, SLP

Those of us who work with families of toddlers find ourselves giving the same advice to many or even most of our families. One of the most common pieces of advice we give is for families to reduce, or better yet stop, telling their toddler to “say [word].” We know this seems counterintuitive. Families want their children to speak, and they may have used this strategy successfully with other children. However, especially for young children with speech and language delays, avoiding “say” can be a valuable strategy to actually encourage MORE words! Why would that be, you may ask?

1. Toddlers don’t love to be told what to do.

As any parent of a toddler can tell you, they can be spirited little creatures who feel strongly about everything! A toddler’s job is to push limits and explore boundaries. Often, telling them what to do will result in exactly the opposite; they might have done what you wanted them to do, but because you told them to do it? Not gonna happen, mom. Instead, we simply model, model, model what we want them to say, without pressure. They are more likely to imitate a sound or word if it feels like their own idea!

2. They may not be able to say it.

Especially if a child is having motor difficulties in producing sounds and words with their mouth, you may be asking them to do something that isn’t possible. Even if it’s a word you’ve heard your child say previously, they may not be able to say it in this moment under these circumstances. We want our little ones to feel comfortable and safe to try out new sounds and words. It’s hard to take risks if you’re afraid to fail!

3. It may decrease initiation of communication.

Our goal for all kids is for them to initiate communication, whatever that looks like at their current level. For some kids, that will mean handing an item to an adult for help or pointing at what they want. Some kids will sign and some will use words. It’s important that we honor their communication attempts because we want them to know that communication is power! Some kids will become dependent on being told what to say if they are prompted too often to “say [x].” A child who says a lot of words but doesn’t use them independently isn’t really communicating as functionally as a child who uses gestures on their own!

So what do we do instead?

When your child points at their cup, our impulse is to tell them to “Say ‘milk!’ Tell me ‘milk, please!’” Let’s make a small but important change. Instead, when your child points to their cup, you can say “Milk! You want milk! Here’s your milk. Mmmmm, yummy milk.” You just gave your child four good models of the word “milk!” They may not say it this time, but you’ve avoided drawing a battle line and also shown your child that their current form of communication (pointing, in this case) has the power to get their wants and needs met.

Another strategy that gets kids talking is incorporating silly sounds (boom, whee, whoa, yippee!) into daily activities. These sounds are fun and often kids are more likely to practice their imitation skills on silly sounds before they feel brave enough to try lots of new actual words. Make using sounds and words silly and fun, and your child is more likely to start trying to say them, too!

As always, if you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, consult with a speech-language pathologist who can address your child’s specific areas of need.


An 8-week program for children age 3-6 with sensory processing differences

Children with sensory processing differences have difficulty with regulation, which sometimes makes it difficult for them to interact with the world around them. Our Sensory Explorers group targets regulation in order to build engagement! This group is led by pediatric occupational therapists Mackenzie Baldock (2:30 group) OR Meghan Day (8:30 group) and developmental therapist/PLAY Project Consultant Brenna Thompson, all of whom specialize in using developmentally appropriate strategies to support children so they can learn new skills. Group meets once/week for 60 minutes.

Wondering if this class is appropriate for your child? Some characteristics of kids who benefit: easily frustrated with play, repetitive play, difficulty sitting/keeping still to engage in play, refuses to allow others to engage in play, unable to be messy, overly busy, quickly overwhelmed in a busy environment, picky eater, difficulty tolerating grooming/dressing/diapering routines, struggles with transitions/following a group plan/routine. 

Goals of the group include:

  • Child participating in a variety of sensory play activities
  • Engaging socially with others in the group
  • Providing a non threatening environment where children can experience new sensations with the support of a pediatric Occupational Therapist and PLAY Project consultant
  • Providing personalized resources to caregivers, so they better understand the sensory system and learn strategies to assist their child with regulation outside of group
  • Opportunity to meet with other local families

GROUP MEETS for 8 weeks:  Caregivers must stay on the premises to support their child and learn helpful strategies. Children will separate from caregivers for the session; caregivers can socialize in the lobby (we will also provide a few toys for siblings to play). Caregiver education is a key component of this program. 


OPTIONAL Summary Report available at close of session. This 2 page report will summarize your child’s participation in the class and provide helpful sensory strategies to increase their participation in activities. This report could be given to teachers in classrooms & daycares or utilized to help educate other caregivers about ways to help your child participate. This option includes a 30 minute Zoom meeting with Brenna and MacKenzie/Brenna and Meghan to review the report and discuss your child’s progress in Sensory Explorers. COST: $100 due at sign up