I know what you're thinking. Don't our kids get enough homework from school?? Why do I have SPEECH homework on top of that? Isn't that why we're paying for/sending our child to a Speech Pathologist (SLP)?? Good question! Hopefully I can give you a better understanding as to why we do this!
As many of you probably know/understand, homework is meant to REINFORCE what was taught/learned in school that day. It's an opportunity for PRACTICE of that skill. The same is true for skills being taught in speech therapy. In fact, I might go as far as to say that when it comes to therapy targeting production of speech sounds, practicing these newly acquired skills is even MORE important. Believe it or not, we're not just giving kids 'busy work'. There is science behind this process!
Articulation therapy (targeting specific speech sounds that a child is having difficulty with), has a basis in something called the 'Principles of Motor Learning'. While you may not have heard this specific term before, you have ALL applied these principles throughout your lives, likely without knowing it. Can you tie your shoes and type on a keyboard without looking or even thinking about it? Are these everyday tasks now 'automatic' to you? That is motor memory you've developed, through these principles. One definition of motor learning is, ‘A set of processes associated with practice or experience leading to relatively permanent changes in the capability for movement.’ (Schmidt & Lee, 2000). Principles of Motor Learning also involves motivation, varying practice types and schedules, repetitive drill and feedback to successfully implement. You thought long and hard about these tasks when you were first learning. You messed up and tried again, over and over. During this learning process you had parents or teachers helping you, giving verbal directions, showing you how to do it. In the end, you have a very automatic motor pattern or 'motor plan' you've developed for these tasks that you now think very little (if at all) about!
Well, guess what?? SPEECH is one of the most complex and important motor activities we do ALL OF THE TIME to communicate with the world. While you likely don't recall, you worked hard in those toddler years to develop your speech sounds, using these principles! For children without delays or impairments, this learning process flows relatively smoothly, hitting those developmental milestones when expected and growing into your little talkers through the natural flow of everyday conversation and interactions. However, for some children, these everyday interactions and the speech they hear all around them isn't quite enough. The very complex motor activity of quickly and smoothly moving and controlling our articulators to produce clear, intelligible, connected speech is just plain HARD because that tongue, jaw or lips either don't KNOW where to go or as hard as they try, they can't get them where they need to go to produce a certain sound. This is when Principles of Motor Learning are so very important. These children (and sometimes adults!) have not been able to learn the 'correct' motor pattern for certain sounds. They have developed an 'incorrect' motor pattern that is now habituated and has led to decreased speech intelligibility. That's where Speech Pathologists AND homework come in!
At age 5, you practiced how to tie those shoes over and over until it just STUCK! Children with articulation impairments have unknowingly been practicing the wrong motor pattern for certain sounds, which they weren't able to 'grow out of' and has now become an incorrect motor pattern they've habituated. So our jobs, as SLPs, are to teach the correct motor pattern, 'break' that habit and establish the correct motor plan. This is hard work!
Here's a sports analogy for you. . . if you're a right handed pitcher and are asked, after 10 years of pitching that way, to pitch with your left hand, how do you think that will go? Will pitching left handed 1x per week for an hour make you a great left handed pitcher? No! To establish a new motor pattern with your left hand, you practice this new skill EVERYDAY. 100 pitches per week might get you started but 2,000 pitches per week will get you there so much faster! Distributing that practice out over time and increasing frequency helps train the brain to think about that pattern more OFTEN, which strengthens your brain's ability to create a new 'pathway' for this pattern. Should you be expected to change your habits and patterns over night? Absolutely not! Breaking old patterns and establishing new ones takes TIME, PRACTICE, PATIENCE and REPETITION. Science and the Principles of Motor Learning tell us this! When it comes to establishing new motor speech patterns, even 5-10 minutes per day is so incredibly important for retention, building up that muscle memory of how to make those new sounds and contributing to carrying over this skill outside of the therapy room. The ultimate goal is automaticity. We all want to speak without having to think about how to make the sounds.
Whether it's pitching baseballs or practicing our 'R' sounds, practice makes new motor patterns and THAT makes perfect!
I hope when your SLP hands out that homework now, you and your kiddo can cringe a bit less and embrace the power and significance of frequent practice! We promise it will get you to your goals so much faster!