Andy Palmer: 7 speech development tips for children with cochlear implants

Posted on September 3, 2014

Going through boxes of dusty old stuff at the weekend I rediscovered a home-made game that I made to help my deaf son learn how to hear with his cochlear implant.

It was something I called the ‘Ling Machine.’ The Ling Sounds are just noises that cover the spectrum of speech, from a low ‘mmm’ sound all the way to a high-pitched ‘sss’ sound.

They’re important in helping parents identify if their cochlear implanted child can hear and differentiate between all 6 Ling sounds. It was an early but important step.


The Ling Machine

To try and make this aspect of speech development fun, I stuck together six matchboxes and put a picture that corresponded with the Ling sound on top of each box.

A picture of a sweet for the ‘mmm’ sound, a baby for ‘shh’ and a snake for ‘sss’. Then, inside a matchbox, I would put a little sweet as a reward if my son identified a Ling sound correctly  – I must confess the system worked  well.

That was ten years ago, so before I forget, here’s some of the most important things I remember from the experience of helping a young deaf person learn to talk.

I’m not qualified to give speech therapy advice – I’m merely a parent giving my thoughts based on my own particular set of experiences. Consult professionals, friends and other parents and do what works for you – but here’s what worked for me.

1. It’s child’s play – but let the child lead

Play is vital for learning and not just in our species. Many animals learn through play but if you’re playing with the intention of doing some speech development, let the kid lead the way. That’s essential.

The reason why is that if children are engaged and interested, then they’re more likely to hear and try to use the new words or sounds associated with the activity.

It was quite surprising to me how often I took over play – leading my son to do what I wanted him to do rather than observing and adding the simple sounds and language associated with what he was doing.

For example, if he was pushing a car around backwards I should introduce the word backwards or reverse and the noise of it rather than try take-over and enforce the rule that cars mostly go forwards.

Put the mobile phone away and turn off the telly because playing well really is harder than it seems.

2. Become life’s commentator

The role of a parent of a deaf child with implants, and I speak as a parent who has no hearing children, is to act as life’s commentator. Life’s John Motson or John Madden.

So much vocabulary is built up by hearing kids by simply watching TV, listening to the radio or overhearing adults or other kids around them.

Implanted kids just don’t pick it up in the same way so to build vocabulary the parent has to intentionally deliver it and not rely on incidental listening.

If you notice something – say it. If you do something – say what you’re doing. A good example is rather than just fetching the milk from the fridge say ‘I’m going to the fridge to fetch some milk’ or ‘Lazy daddy! The washing bin is over-flowing’  rather than simply doing the chore. There really is a wide-world of language opportunities to exploit from the mundane. Use them.

3. Be one step ahead

Let’s say kiddie has started saying the word ‘train’. Develop it one step by describing trains as either stream trains, or diesel trains or high-speed trains.

Once that’s in the bag, bring out the words locomotive or passenger trains. Those rules of escalation of vocabulary can be applied to anything.

A cat can then be a tabby cat, a domestic cat or an endangered cat. As we noted in point two, unless you say these words, they’re not likely to be picked up incidentally.

4. Keep it quiet around the house

Ask any deaf person who uses hearing aids or cochlear implants and they’ll tell you that background noise is the bane of their lives. It can make listening, already very tricky into a near-impossible feat.

A good response is to try to keep the noises around the home low so your language can be heard and copied more easily. That means keep the TV off when it’s not being watched or turn the car stereo off if you have something to say that you want understood. Even moderate background noise just makes everything harder in a way that is hard for people with perfect hearing to understand.

5. Avoid the cobblestone ruts of vocabulary

Horse-drawn carts created ruts in medieval cobblestone streets. The more the carts got stuck in the ruts, the deeper those ruts became. I remember thinking that the same could be said for language regular use around the home. It seemed easy to fall into a narrow (but fully understood) language trap.

Try not to get too used to one way of saying something once it is understood. Vary what you say to avoid developing a rut in the household vernacular.

At the risk of labouring the point, you’re the most important source of new vocabulary so ‘switch off’ a light occasionally rather than ‘turn it off’ like you normally do. Offer ‘some refreshment’ rather than ‘a drink’ occasionally.

Yes, it seems a little strange but the fact is that someone has to introduce these words eventually, so it may as well be you.

6. Model language and avoid correcting

Modelling language, or repeating back something correctly, is possibly the most used tool. There are literally thousands of opportunities for correction along the way but being frequently corrected  by a parent is likely to be both irritating and a threat to a deaf child’s valuable self-esteem.

To model, just say, as if to affirm, what should have been said back if it wasn’t quite right. Leave it at that. Let the human brain and your mutual understanding of what’s going on take care of the rest.

7. Self-evaluate

Possibly the most helpful thing our speech therapist (you know who you are) did for us is video me and the boy playing together at home.

I watched the tape afterwards and was told to evaluate myself against some key criteria such as: Did I model the language? Did I allow the child to lead the play? Was I listening to what the child was saying? And so on.

It was a revelation. Once I watched my easily distracted and controlling self on camera, I could see what I was missing. The proto-words I ignored and the gaps in language aching to be filled. I began to understand that playing with a child with the aim of developing speech takes no small amount of concentration.

Andy is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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