Does Oral-Motor Therapy Really Work?

In every profession there are trends. Most people follow trends, it’s hard not to. Some trends are benign, some strange and some may turn out to be harmful. The field of Speech Language Pathology also has trends with oral motor therapy for articulation disorders being the most recent.

For those of you who do not know what oral motor therapy is, it is blowing whistles, doing tongue exercises, blowing bubbles etc with the hope of correcting speech errors and making speech clearer.

The acronym is NS-OME (non speech oral motor exercises). These exercises are being used by 85% of speech language pathologists to change speech sound productions according to a nation wide survey of 537 SLP’s by Lof & Watson (2004; In press). In a recent presentation by Gregory L. Lof, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, this statistic was reported along with other frightening information about Speech Language Pathologists and their use of non speech oral motor exercises.

Oral Motor Therapy For Speech Is Experimental

While there is no current research to support its use, 61% of clinicians reported that “The literature I have read strongly encourages the use of NS-OME.” There are numerous therapy guides, activity books and tons and tons of material to purchase, yet no evidence to prove its effectiveness. Lof stated and I agree that parents should be made aware of this and be informed that oral motor therapy is experimental.

When the trend first began I found myself falling into the trap as I went to several conferences encouraging the use of oral motor exercises to improve speech production. I tried all the tricks purchased all the material and talked the oral motor talk. However over time I found myself using less and less of these techniques because for me they were not working.

For me, they proved to be a waste of time and energy when using them for speech production. I found if I taught a child to blow bubbles he got really good at blowing bubbles, however if I wanted him to say “hoo” we better practice saying “hoo”.

An analogy given by Lof is comparing non speech oral motor exercises to teaching a basketball player to pretend to hold a ball and then pretend to throw it toward a non-existent hoop with the eventual hope of improving free throwing. It just will not work and either does non speech oral motor exercises.

Oral Motor Therapy Has Its Uses

Oral Motor therapy does have its uses. While it is ineffective for improving speech production it is effective for treating many issues related to feeding. And that is an important distinction. If your child is drooling, or unable to move food around with his tongue and chew, Oral Motor Therapy can be very effective if provided by a competent speech language pathologist.

So for those of you who may have children receiving this type of therapy ask questions, get involved, and make a change if necessary!

Isa Marrs

Isa Marrs is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in articulation, pragmatic language and feeding disorders in children. Read More

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