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"Um" Overload

It's like fingernails across a chalkboard: Every time your 9-year-old opens her mouth, she peppers her talk with "um," "uh," and other annoying fillers. Why does she, like, do that?

Because it's common among preteens who, as they try out more sophisticated ways to communicate, use words like "um," "like," and "you know" while they figure out what to say next, says Joan Detz, author of It's Not What You Say, It's How You Say It. They also pick it up from other kids, of course.

There's nothing wrong with an occasional "um" or "you know," but if your child's speech is so overrun with such words that she's hard to understand, you'll want to help her cut down on them. That way, she'll express herself more confidently to teachers and other grown-ups, who'll be more likely to take what she says seriously. To help right speech wrongs:

• Watch your own "ums" Kids pick up bad speech patterns from other kids  -- but your child could also be taking her cues from you. Let her hear you speak with clarity, confidence, and enthusiasm, and she'll more likely speak the same way.

• Practice, practice, practice. Set a timer for one minute and ask her to tell you about her day, using as few crutch words as possible until the timer goes off. Tell her, "Great job!" if she uses few or no fillers; try expanding the time as she improves.

• Let her say it again. When you hear crutch words, wait until your child stops speaking, then gently ask her to start over, without the "ums." Explain that you'll understand her better. It'll help her focus on her thoughts and choose the right words.

• Be her echo. Sometimes it's tough for kids to hear what they're saying wrong, so repeat it back. Say, "Did you say 'Mom, I, um, want to, like, go to Lila's house?'" This will help her become more conscious of her speech patterns.