Verbal Imitation

The skill of imitation is hugely important. Think about how often you imitate others. Not sure what you are supposed to do next during a work out class? Imitation. Not sure where to stand in line to checkout at the post office? Imitation. Not sure if you are supposed to clear your dishes or leave them at the table at your favorite fast casual lunch spot? Imitation. Imitation is an important skill but it’s tricky. Once you learn how to imitate the uber important steps is learning the where and when of imitation. But you’ve got to get the basics down first. Check out this post on how to get started teaching the skill of imitation and why it’s essential of foundational skills.

Imitation helps us practice a skill. For students with emerging vocal verbal skills, working on the skill of imitation is a great way to make those sounds more functional, frequent, and consistent. This is ideal for students with limited vocal skills, but who can make some sounds and imitate those sounds. When starting to work on vocal imitation, the skill you are working on is – when I say ___, you say immediately after. This will be the foundation for later communication training when you are teaching your student to ask for help or request more food. You have to start here!

Start with what they know.

To start things off, identify a few approximation your student can sound out successfully. Also think about functionality. These can be approximations to actual words you’d want the student to use throughout their day. For example, as an approximation to bubbles, a highly preferred item, you might teach your student to imitate “buh” as an approximation.


When starting off, you want them to be successful and start to learn the concept of “say as I say” – which is why I like starting with sounds they already know. Since this is a  new skills, include some really preferred items as rewards for correct responses. At the same time, you want to use items/activities that your kiddo can enjoy for a brief moment before the next trial. I’ve found that mini-marshmallows are great as edibles during vocal imitation programs (provided your kiddo loves marshmallows!). The general idea here, is that they can consume it quickly, each bite is tasty, and they won’t get too much in one session. Plus! They don’t have to give it back.

How this looks.

Sit directly in front of your student, model the first sound (i.e. “buh”), and as soon as the student says “buh,” he is rewarded with the mini-marshmallow and some praise, e.g., “Nice job Johnny!” Then the next sound is provided. Rotate through the different sounds in the set that you’ve created. Sometimes moving quickly helps keep up the momentum.

For the last program I ran like this, each session included five opportunities for responding to each sound approximation (a total of 20 opportunities with 4 approximations). As such, the data sheet was designed so that the instructor could record correct (+) and incorrect (-) responses, as well as a tally of the total corrects (which is circled).

I recommend graphing the data for each sound approximation so you can see how the student is learning across sessions.

What’s next?

Once the student is successful with sounds they now, select new sounds to learn. Mix up sounds they know with new ones. So for example, if a student already could repeat buh, do, and ah – after those are mastered, work on do, ah, my, and no. So there are two previously masted sounds and two new ones. This way there is still an easy way to contact reinforcement but you are adding new sounds in too.


After working on these skills in isolation, work on them in real life! Model the correct response when a student will request a desired item and use those close sound approximations as functional communicative vocalizations.


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