What Does Oral Motor Therapy Have to Do With Speech?

By Pam Marshalla

Q: Most oral motor exercises are not identical to the movements required for speech. No English speech sounds involve tongue wagging, whistling, tongue clicks, tongue curls, etc. So what do oral motor exercises have to do with speech?

In 2007, I reviewed 73 textbooks, clinical guides, and conference proceedings in the areas of articulation, phonology, motor speech, feeding, dysphagia, orofacial myology, and oral motor. These books spanned the years 1912-2007. I was studying the history of jaw, lip, and tongue facilitation.

This literature review revealed that simple activities such as those you mention were discussed in a wide variety of these publications.

It is most important to note that these methods were NEVER recommended as a direct path to phoneme production.

Instead, very simple oral motor activities such as those you mentioned are recommended to:

  • Facilitate overall sensory processing and movement skill for later phoneme production.
  • Facilitate overall sensory processing and movement skill for later or simultaneous work on feeding or swallowing skills.
  • Facilitate a client’s attention and orientation to the oral mechanism at a gross level (to help him discover he has a tongue).
  • Help the client begin to move the oral mechanism in gross movement patterns (to “vivify” oral movement).
  • Achieve some other neuromuscular end (e.g., to increase tonus, increase range of motion, differentiate tongue from jaw or lip movements, facilitate midline integration of movement, normalize oral tactile sensitivity, and so forth).
  • Assess oral motor skill: tone, ability to cross the midline, dissociation of tongue-from-jaw and tongue-from-lips.

Oral motor therapy is sensory and muscle training for phoneme production. We prepare the oral mechanism to function in certain mature ways so that it can call on those skills when learning phonemes.

These methods have never been intended to be a substitute for articulation or phonological therapy.

Sports Comparison

Think about gymnastics. A world-class gymnast might lift weights as a part of his training. Why? What does lifting weights have to do with gymnastics? Lifting weights improves aspects of motor learning: control, strength, endurance, speed, and so forth. Improvements in these aspects of motor control help the athletes underlying motor skills develop. But the gymnast still has to get on the equipment and practice specific stylized movements.


Likewise, oral motor work prepares the jaw, lips, and tongue for the work needed for speech sound production. But the client still has to practice specific stylized movements. He still has to learn how to make the movements necessary to produce the phonemes himself.


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