Oral Motor Exercises CAN Improve Speech!

The efficacy of non-speech oral motor exercises is a topic that has been debated among speech-language pathologists for quite some time. While many SLPs claim that oral motor exercises involving breath and various movements of the tongue, lips, cheeks and jaw will increase strength and accuracy of speech sound production, others state that these exercises are not effective in improving articulation and will therefore avoid incorporating them into therapy. This is a detriment to children who exhibit reduced oral motor skills! Current research indicates the following:

  • non-speech oral motor exercises do not directly increase strength
  • oral motor exercises not involving speech are not effective because they lack task specificity

Given various case studies that have been carried out on this topic, these are valid arguments. However, what this research fails to address are the indirect effects that OM exercises have on a child’s speech speech skills via the child’s sensory system.

If sensory deficits are not addressed when working on oral motor and/or feeding goals with children, effective progress cannot be made. When children present with low tone in their oral motor area (i.e., decreased strength; poor endurance), they more than likely present with low tone throughout their entire body. For example, they likely exhibit poor posture, fatigue quickly, have an increased susceptibility to falls and injuries, demonstrate reduced endurance in gross motor tasks and/or avoid chewy foods. A weak core negatively affects breath support and control, which in turn has a detrimental impact on speech production. When a child cannot breathe effectively, they cannot speak effectively.

The somatosensory system is a giant network of nerve endings and touch receptors in the skin that controls our sense of touch. Mechanoreceptors are a subset of the somatosensory system; they perceive sensations such as pressure, vibrations and texture, and some of the most sensitive mechanoreceptors are found in the face, lips and tongue. By increasing a child’s awareness of their oral motor area through vibration, deep pressure and use of various textures on and around the facial area, stronger neural connections can be made that increase a child’s perception of their oral motor mechanism. With increased consistency and frequency of this type of input, the neural pathways providing feedback to the child’s sensory system become stronger and more effective.

Adding in visual cues can further improve progress. As a child better perceives their lips, tongue, jaw and cheeks, visual cues via mirror feedback give them additional sensory input. They may recognize, for instance, that pursing their lips out and turning on their voice will produce a long /u/ sound. Before consistent OM exercises, they may have had no perception of where their lips even were! And when their core is stronger and more stabilized from gross motor sensory input, they are better able to sustain their breath when producing that sound. Suddenly, aspects like strength and range of motion of oral motor movements appear to have increased- perhaps not as a direct result from OM exercises, but as an indirect result from consistent and purposeful therapeutic attempts to “wake up” that child’s sensory system.

So when it comes to OM exercises, have faith! Trust the process of sensory-based oral motor input- it certainly CAN improve speech.

References:

https://www.homesciencetools. com/a/skin-touch

http://www.apraxia-kids.org/ library/what-does-the- research-say-regarding-oral- motor-exercises-and-the- treatment-of-speech-sound- disorders

https://childdevelopment.com. au/areas-of-concern/diagnoses/ low-muscle-tone/

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