Help! My Child Won’t Imitate Words …. Begin with Imitating Movements & Sounds in Play

Learning to imitate sounds and words is a critical skill in a child’s quest to become verbal. Many children who are apraxic, or who exhibit motor planning problems, have great difficulty learning to repeat words.

Teach a Child to Imitate

Teaching a child to imitate words often begins with teaching him HOW to imitate. Sometimes it’s easier to start with movements of your body rather than with words or even sounds. You can begin by modeling easy movements you know he can do such as banging on his high chair tray, smacking at a window when he’s looking outside or clapping. If your child is already waving bye-bye or playing interactive games such as Peek-a-Boo or So Big, he already knows how to do this since “copying” you is how he’s learned the game in the first place. If you need more help with remembering how to play these kinds of games, check out my manual Teach Me To Play WITH You.

For kids who don’t catch on and try to repeat what you’ve done, I always back up and start to imitate their movements. Pick a time when your child is in a happy, playful mood to do this. It might also help to be in a confined space, such as inside a playhouse or under a blanket or table, so that her attention is focused on you. Wait until she does something, and repeat her movement. Stare back at her expectantly and wait for her to do it again. If she doesn’t, wait for her next big movement, then try again. When she notices and repeats the same or another movement, copy her again. Make this a game over the next several days or weeks so she expects you to imitate her. I also try to not to talk too much during these interactions so that the focus is on imitation, not on what I’ve said. Too much talking takes the focus off imitating, and this is the skill you need to teach. If I talk at all during this kind of exchange, it’s usually to say a funny novel word such as Bang, Bang, Bang or making a silly noise.

Once your child understands this game, try to take the lead by initiating movements you’ve seen her do in your last few play sessions. If she doesn’t do this on her own, try to take her hands and gently perform the action after you’ve done it. Some of these are performed with your mouth (blowing, fake coughing/sneezing, smacking, etc..) so they are particularly useful for helping kids move toward imitating vocally.

Additional ideas for other movements to have your child imitate –

Touching various body parts



Shaking his head

Smacking lips/kissing

Opening & closing your mouth

Clicking your tongue



Give me 5

Touching the floor

Holding arms up

Patting your head

Stomping Feet

Fake Cough

Fake Sneeze


Moving on to Imitating Sounds

When your child can imitate these movements pretty well, but still doesn’t seem to be able to make the leap to imitating words, I add silly sounds to the imitation games to accompany movements he can already imitate. For example, when I’m clapping, I say, “Yay!” If I shake my head, I say, “No, no, no” (in a silly, playful way), or I might add “sound effects” with popping my lips, or saying, “Do Do Do” as a I jump up and down. One silly sound that works well is saying, “Mmmmmm” when you’re eating a yummy snack. I add a little side-to-side shoulder action as I model this one to give them a motor movement to copy. These silly words, often called Exclamatory Words, are often among the first words that babies try to repeat and say on their own. Try some of the following:

Other Exclamatory Words

uh-oh, oops, whee, wow, ouch, oh, Oh man!, Oh no!, yuck, icky, yum-yum, boo, an audible inhalation or exhalation (think a surprised noise)

Fun With Noises

Some children are able to produce animal sounds before they begin to imitate words. I try these often during play with a farm set. A good first one to try is panting like a dog. I particularly do this if I know the child can imitate opening his mouth. Don’t forget other animal sounds like a bark, meow, neigh, oink, quack, moo, baa, roar, ssss for a snake, etc… I sometimes ask a child, “What does the ____ say?” before I do it, but most of the time, I grab the animal, hold it up by my face as if I’m pretending to be the animal, and model the sound. Exaggerate your facial expressions too. This nearly always generates a laugh, even if I don’t get them to try to repeat the animal sound just yet. Model the sound in play with the animals and barn too, but holding the toy animal by your face while you emphasize the sound and darn near make a fool out of yourself works really well! If they don’t try to imitate this, I might hold it next to their mouths and say, “You do it. You’re the ____!” If you need to take the pressure off of vocalizing, pretend to kiss the animal using an exaggerated smacking sound, then have them try. This also works well with puzzle pieces using animals. Don’t forget zoo animals either, but you may have to be more creative with their noises.

I also try noises to accompany whatever action we’re using in play with the farm animals or even dolls. Have them eat, drink (I do a loud slurpy noise), and everyone’s favorite, snore. When characters walk I either say, “Walk Walk Walk” or “Up Up Up” as they climb. You might also try to model a new consonant sound that they can’t usually produce in a word attempt. My friend who is a DI uses a little chant, “Doo dee doo dee doo” when characters walk, and she’s gotten several children to produce a /d/ in this context when I haven’t been able to get it in a real word. Other sounds I use routinely in play include fake crying, sneezing, laughing, yawning, and shivering for cold or scared.

I always play using vehicle noises. Don’t forget about vroom, zoom, boom, crash, honk-honk, beep-beep, choo-choo (or woo woo), siren noises, etc…. Try these in the middle of play. One of my favorites to do is to get the vehicle stuck when I model “stuuuuuuuuck” and then make lots of effortful noise while I try to pull the vehicle out.  Again try the by the face method, especially for the honk, beep, choo-choo, etc… I also do these with puzzle pieces of vehicles if a kid is too “busy” with a toy vehicle to notice all of my vocal efforts during play.

Another good thing to try is having a child vocalize into a bucket or can since this produces an echo-like noise. I had one little girl with Down syndrome who would not imitate any sound or word unless we first tried it this way. Babbling syllables is a good way to start with this. Try to use the same sounds you know your baby can do such as mamamama, bububububu, or dadadadada. If you can’t get a babble with consonant and vowel syllables, start with vowel sounds such as “ah,” “uh,” or “oh.”  Then I move to vowels that sound like words like “i” for “Hi” or “ay” for “Hey.”

If a child is pretty quiet and I don’t hear much noise at all during play, my goal is always to make him noisy, even before we begin to work on words. One thing I try to is to imitate any noise he happens to make whether it’s accidental or on purpose. Tickling or chasing is a good way to elicit squeals or laughter, then I make a big deal out of matching the child’s laugh or squeal with mine aiming for the same sounds, length, volume, and pitch as him.

If you’d like more information about this approach, I can help you! Get my book Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers.  You’ll learn the 8 levels of imitation necessary for helping a late talker learn to imitate and talk!!








  1. Marisa on July 2, 2010 at 1:29 am

    My son is non-verbal and non-imitative. He is 6 years old. He has always “flirted” to get what he wants and has been in speech therapy since he was one. He has a rare micro-deletion syndrome and has been tested for autism and we were told that he has some signs of PDD — but that his real issue is his cognitive delays — testing very low for both receptive and expressive language. He is very sweet, but finds my attempts to play with him irritating. He LOVES songs with anticipation in them and our closest and most positive interactions are when I am singing to him or tickling him. He enjoys people and being out and about. Would any of your resources be helpful to him — especially at his age? He is at the object exchange level with some limited picture exchange. His sign language skills have deteriorated to one or two basket signs for everything (he tends to get concrete skills several signs or the ability to do puzzles and then loses those skills — no one knows why). We live in an area with great resources — but the lack of progress in speech has been frustrating. I appreciate any thoughts. I listened to your podcast about animal sounds and thought it was great.

  2. Laura on July 2, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Marisa – I would continue to use singing and social games like tickling to try to elicit speech from him. Even though he’s 6, developmentally he’s much younger, so the DVDs may be helpful for you as well as my new manual Teach Me To Play WITH You which is filled with strategies to elicit play sounds and early words during social routines and early play with toys.

    However, all of the materials are really written for parents who have little prior knowledge of speech therapy, and it sounds like you have LOTS of experience with that! Watch the clips and read the promos to decide if you would be learning a new approach or tweaking what you already know how to do. I don’t want to discourage you since I think you should NEVER give up on speech, but I don’t want you to get the DVDs and therapy manual if you wouldn’t use them to implement some new ideas or strengthen your commitment to establishing a home program with these guidelines and techniques. The choice is really up to you. Good luck and let me know how he does if decide to get and use them! Laura

  3. swetha on September 23, 2011 at 1:05 am

    hi, my son is 23 months, he has speech delay. we are having early intervention program from last 2 months. he has learnt action for word ‘more’. he responds to few words like high five, peek a boo, bye, ready 1, 2,3 …, super why, barney and few more words and he does all the actions. he has good eye contact, he has good social behavior.
    he has difficulty in imitating our facial expressions like winking, opening or closing mouth,kissing .but he is good in his actions for songs. he is good and easily grasps any thing what we do. he is good in browsing, and goes where he wants and puts the program or game he likes(which he is familiar). some times I feel every thing is ok with him and some time I feel some thing is not in its place. Don’t know what exactly is going on. please help.

  4. Knza on April 29, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    My son has suddenly stopped imitating things. Before that he used to do tongue ckicking, blowing, waving.. Now he only claps . He is 11 months old. Also he has never said mama or baba or dada( typical babbling) he says very rare tata. He says abba

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