My Child's Speech is Unclear! What can I do?
Updated: Apr 2, 2022
Children can say almost all speech sounds accurately by 4 years of age. A child who is unable to say sounds by the expected ages may have what speech pathologists call a speech sound delay or disorder. You may hear terms "articulation delay" or phonological disorder" to describe the speech sound errors made (ASHA, 2022).
How do you know what to do when?
Early intervention is considered appropriate for children with speech sound errors however we also have approximate estimates of when a child is like to sound a particular sound. All children are uniquely different and these times may vary (ASHA, 2022).
It is normal for young children to say the wrong sounds at times. For example, your child may make a "w" sound for an "r" and say "wabbit" for "rabbit." They may leave sounds out of words, such as "nana" for "banana." This is okay when he or she is young however this may become a problem when it extends beyond the "expected" age. Your child may also say a sound differently because you have an accent or a dialect. In this instance it is not a speech sound disorder. Children learning more than one language at a time may develop some sounds earlier or later (ASHA, 2022).
Approximate ages when most English-speaking children develop sounds.
By 3 months - Makes cooing sounds.
By 5 months - Laughs and makes playful sounds.
By 6 months - Makes speech-like babbling sounds like "puh", "ba", "mi", "da" (ASHA, 2022).
By 1 year - Babbles longer strings of sounds like "mimi", "upup", "bababa". During the first year of life children produce these first sounds (words), which are frequently heard from their parents (McLeod & Baker, 2017).
By 3 years - A child will say the consonant sounds - "m", "n", "h", "w", "p", "b", "t", "d", "k", "g", "f", "v" and "z" sounds in short words. People who are familiar to the child will understand the child's speech (ASHA, 2022). Between the ages of 1-3 years children increasing use word+gesture combinations which evidence shows predicts the onset of two-word combinations. During the first 3 years of life children's oral spaces enlarge as their lower jaw and other bony structures grow. As this develops it enables more sophisticated movements for speech, eating and swallowing (McLeod & Baker, 2017).
By 4 years - A child will say "s", "sh", and "ch" in short words (McLeod & Baker, 2017).
By 5-7 years - A child may still make mistakes with the "j", "ng", "th", "z", "l", and "r" sounds however by 5 years we would expect all sounds to be approximate except for the "th" sound. By this stage most people understand the child’s speech (ASHA, 2022; McLeod & Baker, 2017).
Causes of Speech Sound Disorders
Some of the known causes of speech sound errors (delay, disorders) may include:
Genetics including genetic syndromes.
Craniofacial anomalies (e.g. cleft palate).
Motor speech impairment
Autism Spectrum Disorder (McLeod & Baker, 2017).
The exact cause is not necessarily imperative to know in order to provide to treatment however this may impact the length and design of treatment. There are many differing types of phonological errors and your speech pathologist will work out the ones that require therapy and help with that will have the maximum impact on your child's speech.
Speech Pathology Treatment
A speech pathologist (SP), can assess your child's speech. The SP will listen to your child speech sounds to hear how he or she pronounces them. A SP looks at how your child moves their lips, jaw, and tongue. They may also assess your child’s language skills. Many children with speech sound disorders also have co-occurring language delay or disorders. An example of this could be, your child may have trouble following directions or telling stories (ASHA, 2022).
It is also important to have your child’s hearing checked as part of the process to ensure your child does not have a hearing loss. A child with a hearing loss may have more trouble learning to talk and the reason for the hearing loss needs to be investigated (ASHA, 2022).
Treating Speech Sound Delays or Disorders
Speech pathologists can help your child to pronounce sounds accurately and will coach you to practice at home.
Learning the accurate way to make sounds.
Learn how to practice sounds in different words.
Learn how to practice sound in short and longer sentences (ASHA, 2022).
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2022). Speech Sound Disorders, retrieved from https://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/speech-sound-disorders/#:~:text=About%20Speech%20Sound%20Disorders,-Children%20may%20say&text=Most%20children%20can%20say%20almost,speech%20sound%20disorders%20like%20this.
McLeod, S. & Baker, Elise. (2017). Children's Speech: An evidence based approach to assessment and intervention, Pearson Education.