Facilitating First Words

June 12, 2023

Imitation is an important skill when learning to talk. As speech therapists, we use imitation to teach our clients to use new words and make new sounds. However, imitation is a learned skill; not all children get it immediately.


Parents get frustrated when their child is not talking and can be heard repeating over and over again, “Say…” However, we cannot force our children to speak. DeThorne, Johnson, Walder, & Mahurin-Smith, (2009) discussed six methods to elicit speech development for children who are not imitating. All six methods are considered “evidence-based practice,” meaning there is research that confirms that the method works. 

Methods to help facilitate imitation

Provide access to Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

  • Simple sign language (i.e., the signs for “more” and “open”)
  • Pictures – in our early intervention group therapy classes, we use pictures during snack so that our children can request photos to help transition between rooms/activities (i.e. an image of the gym to indicate gross motor playtime)

Minimize pressure to speak

  • Avoid direct requests to imitate
  • Follow the child’s lead
  • Play with puppets

Imitate the child

  • Imitate their sounds (babble) and non-verbal actions (anything from yawns to banging on the table)
  • Assign meaning to their vocalizations: as they say “bababa” show them a ball

Utilize exaggerated intonation and slowed the tempo

  • “More” can be modeled with a rising intonation to indicate a request
  • Use nursery rhymes with pauses so that your child can be tempted to fill in the words (“Row, row,  row, your…”)

Augment auditory, visual, tactile, and proprioceptive feedback

  • Tap your top lip when using the sound for “t” to signify your tongue position or tap your throat for “k” and “g” sounds
  • Use echoes through a tube to amplify sounds or a mirror to emphasize mouth position

Avoid emphasis on nonspeech-like articulator movements: focus on function

  • Use a kazoo to elicit the “m” sound, with closed lips and voice
  • Use fun sounds during play, like blowing raspberries as a car motor

Is your child struggling with language development?  Contact us today to make an appointment with one of our speech-language pathologists.



DeThorne, L.S., Johnson, C.J., Walder, L., & Mahurin-Smith, J. (2009). When “simon says” doesn’t work: Alternatives to imitation for facilitating early speech development. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18, 133-145.

Make an Appointment

We know your time is valuable! Complete the appropriate form below and a member of our office staff will speak with you within 24 hours, Monday-Friday, to set up an appointment.

We look forward to serving you!

The key to effective treatment is an early response.
return to top