Monday, January 28, 2013

Top 5 Carrier Phrase Activities for Speech & Language Development

Carrier phrases are a handy little speech-language therapy trick. We use them any time we want to help someone extend the length of their sentence, but keep the sentence somewhat simple.

As speech-language therapists, we often work to gradually increase the difficulty level of a task. We do this so that we can help an individual stay successful by taking small steps toward their ultimate goal.  Say, for example, a child struggles with fluency (or 'stutters').  We might teach that child certain strategies to stay fluent and then initially practice those strategies  at the single word level where it will be relatively easy for him to execute the strategy.  As he gains success, we then gradually increase the difficulty level. 

Many times, we move from having a a child practice a skill at the single word level ("cat") to having him practice at the two-word phrase level ("big cat"), to having him work at the sentence level ("There's a big cat!").  However, the jump from phrase level to sentence level is sometimes a bit too big. Why? Because it requires a person to think of a sentence that makes sense.  This increased pull on cognition significantly increases the complexity of the task, which then sometimes results in a backslide in progress.  The solution? Carrier phrases. 

As I explained in the post What are Carrier Phrases and How Do I Use Them?, carrier phrases are those phrases in which the first few words remain the same, and the last one changes. One example is "I see a ____," used during a book activity.  The child might label "I see a horse," "I see a cow," "I see a dog" and so on.  Because the first few words stay the same, he doesn't have to think of what he is going to say except to change the noun.  This leads to a sentence that is longer, creative, and yet linguistically simple.

The use of carrier phrases can be a very important step when working with children who struggle with fluency. Carrier phrases are also really helpful for children with apraxia of speech or significant articulation disorders, because the speech sounds in the initial part of the sentence stay the same, which allows that part of the sentence to roll off the child's tongue without challenging his motor planning system as much as a totally new sentence would.  I also frequently use carrier phrases with children with autism spectrum disorders when I am first teaching them to verbalize simple sentences.  In this case, I will often use pictures along with the carrier phrase, so the child can visually see the nouns that are rotated into the carrier phrase. As he does so, he begins to understand that words are building blocks for sentences and can be combined in lots of different ways.

My Top Five Carrier Phrases
(And Activities To Go With Them)

I found a....

Sensory Bin Hide and Find
Most often, I elicit this carrier phrase by hiding objects or pictures inside of sensory bins filled with rice, sand, popcorn or oatmeal. Kids never get tired of digging and finding! Plus, playing in sensory bins seems to carry all kinds of other benefits, as well, as eloquently explained by
When a child pulls something out, I have him say, "I found a....."
Everyday Sensory Play in Preschool

It's an oldie but a goodie.  Lay out matching cards face down, take turns looking for pairs, and then celebrate and say what you found ("I found....") when you find a pair.  This is a speech therapy classic for a reason: you can integrate almost any type of picture (and therefore any type of target) into the activity.  I also recently found this fun fishy twist on the game, making it even more fun to play:

The Puzzle Game
To make puzzles more fun and elicit more language, I often get out two different peg puzzles. Then I dump all the pieces into the middle of the table face down and ask the kiddo I'm working with to pick one puzzle.  I take the other, and we take turns pulling pieces out of the middle, saying what we found ("I found...."), and putting the pieces into our  puzzles. First one to complete their puzzle wins! (And, since it's easy for the adult to tell which pieces are which, it's also easy to let the child win).  Sound puzzles are my favorite. 

Clothespin Surprises
I happened upon this activity from Chit Chat and Small Talk on Pinterest the other day. It looks easy, fun, and perfect for "I found a ....' carrier phrases!
I see a /I spy a....

Books are a great way to elicit the "I see/I spy" carrier phrase.  You can simply take turns labeling what you see in the book (you say, "I see...." and then wait for your child to take a turn), or you can play the classic "I spy ..." game ("I spy something that is....").  Playing "I spy" brings with it an additional benefit: working on describing, a language task that can be difficult for many kiddos with language delays.  I usually choose simple picture books with lots of actual photographic pictures on one page when using the book as an activity like this. 

I spy
Speaking of "I spy," this can be an excellent game to play even without books. I play it with my kids anytime I want to pass the time- especially on long car rides or during restaurant waits.   I recently also started playing the below "I Spy" game with my eight year old. It's a great "I spy" game because it moves quickly, so it's possible to get lots of "I spy ...." sentences.  And, it's a nice game for working on selective attention, too.

Flashlight Games and Hallway Hunts
Another speechie standby. Tape pictures on a wall and turn out the lights- find the picture by flashlight and say what you see! (I see....) Or, tape the pictures in various places throughout a long hallway and go on a picture hunt. For added fun, grab a paper towel tube and make some binoculars before you head out on your hunt. Either way, have fun shouting what you see as you go! 

I spy bottles and I spy bags
Another great way to play I spy! Hide small objects inside of ride, but avoid the mess of sensory bins by enclosing the rice inside of an I Spy Bag (made in the picture below by  I've also seen this same concept presented in a see-through bottle. Either way, there is lots of time for "I spy" but a lot less mess!

Go Fishing!
 In grad school, we flipped a table on its side and put paper fish with paper clips on one side of the table and a child with a magnetic fishing pole on the other.  Then, when the child "caught" a fish, we had him tell us what he had caught by saying, "I got the....."  The other day, I saw a fun version of this on Pinterest, courtesy of Pigtails and Tutus. Definitely something fun to try out a home on a cold or rainy day!

Slap Game
This slap game, from Kindergarten and Mooneyisms,was originally designed as a game to enhance sight reading skills. But  it got me thinking: with a few simple modifications, it could easily be a speech therapy game. Lay out pictures instead of words, and have a stack of the the same words face down in the middle of the table. Then, turn one card over at a time and race to be the first one to find the matching card and slap it ! Don't forget to say, "I got the .... " to label what you slapped!
Kindergarten and Mooneyisms

I have a....

Bingo is a super easy activity in which to to use "I have a..." carrier phrases, especially if you are using a Picture Bingo game. Every time the child places a bingo chip on her card, she gets to say, "I have a...." and label the picture she just covered. 

Go Fish Card Game
Okay, I'm cheating a little bit on this one.  When playing the classic Go Fish card game, the carrier phrase you'll most likely use is: "Do you have a....?" Even so, this is a fantastic game for carrier phrases, because you can use any cards you want, as long as you have pairs. This makes it a great game for working on articulation because you can use it with any sound cards you want!

       I made a....   
Playdoh and Cookie Cutters
Little ones love to roll and squish playdoh.  They love it even more when they get to cut out fun shapes with cookie cutters. And, since this is an easy thing to do, they'll want to do it over and over, making it easy to get lots of practice telling you what they made! (I made.....). I pull out play-doh and cookie cutters all the time to get this carrier phrase. 

Water painting
Another simple and yet engaging activity I found on Pinterest, thanks to Grab a paintbrush and paint pictures on the sidewalk with water. Just like the playdoh and cookie cutters activity, this is easy and quick enough that kids will end up painting lots of different things, making it easy to get them to say, "I made a...." over and over again.

             There you have it! My favorite carrier phrases and activities to boot.  
Share and Enjoy! :)


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  3. FANTASTIC post! I just pinned it and shared in on my blog's FB page as well. Thanks for the amazing content!

    Katie from

  4. Many of these activities also work for TESL. Thanks!


  5. Great ideas!


  6. I use "Where is the ____?" and "Under_____" and we play the cup game (hide a dice etc under one of three cups and they find it). Then I place artic or vocabulary words on top of each of the 3 cups.

  7. great ideas...always in search for speech tx ideas

  8. Thanks for all your ideas! Great post!

  9. Fantastic examples of how to incorporate, thank you!

  10. I love using carrier phrases as an "in-between" from direct imitation to spontaneous production of single words, as well. I use them similarly to anticipatory sets (e.g., Ready, set....). Great post and ideas!

  11. I would like to see more interesting posts on this topic.