Jargon and Intelligibility

By Pam Marshalla

Q: I am working with a 7-year-old in first grade. He has received services since 3-years of age privately and at school. He is making very slow progress in speech, and is having great difficulty comprehending and completing first grade work. His speech is characterized mostly by jargon with a few intelligible words, so some meaning may be derived. He is able to produce two-syllable words but falls apart with more complexity. He occasionally produces three-word intelligible utterances such as “What is it?” or “Where ya goin’?” EVERYONE is asking, “Is he ever going to be intelligible?” Help!

When you add cognitive delay into the mix, you cannot know for certain how far you can take this child in terms of speech and language. But consider this: A seven-year-old who is still using 2-3 word combinations SHOULD be jargoning. That is his expressive speech level. Children jargon a lot between 18-months and 2.5-years of age.

Therefore, I would consider his jargon a GOOD sign. It means that he is trying to push his expressive speech beyond the 2-to-3-word level. He is trying to speak longer utterances. But he does not have the cognitive/linguistic/phonological/oral motor abilities to do so. So it comes out as jargon. In fact, your client is using “jargon embedded with real words” which I consider to be advanced jargon.

Don’t worry about the jargon. Just let it happen.

Instead focus on KEEPING him rehearsing intelligible 2-3 word combinations that are over-articulated and exaggerated. Hold him back. Have him speak a little louder and with exaggerated intonation and stress patterns. Have him punch out the individual syllables. You want him to speak clean, clear, crisp pre-sentences. It is these little pre-sentences that get strung together to make longer utterances.

For example, right now he might say, “Mommy is a girl,” and he might also say, “Daddy is a boy.” In a few months, he will combine these with a conjunction and say, “Mommy is a girl and daddy is a boy.” His utterance will be longer. Its intelligibility will depend upon how well he says each part.

Another example, right now he will say, “That one red”, and he will say, “I like it”. In a few months, he will embed them and say, “I like that red one.” Again he needs to be rehearsing the shorter utterances with the best clarity he can muster so that when they become embedded they will be as intelligible as possible.

Interact with him in ways that reinforce his best productions of the short 2-3 word pre-sentences. Model them for him. Have dialogues in which you both speak back-and-forth in 2-3 word combinations. You want him to speak these shorted utterances the best way he can so that as he learns to stack them together, he will retain the clarity.

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