Most young children have some trouble with speech – that is, with pronouncing some sounds and words. It can be hard for little lips, tongues and other parts of the mouth to make the right sounds at the right times. But some speech troubles can be a sign of speech disorders or speech sound disorders.
About speech and speech development
Speech is the ability to use your lips, tongue and other parts of your mouth to produce sounds.
For speech, children need to understand different sounds and the rules for putting those sounds together in their own language.
Most children master the following sounds at the following ages:
- around 3 years: b, p, m, n, h, d, k, g, ng (sing), t, w, f, y
- around 4-5 years: f, sh, zh, ch, j, s, and cluster sounds tw, kw, gl, bl
- around 6 years: l, r, v, ng, and cluster sounds pl, kl, kr, fl, tr, st, dr, br, fr, gr, sn, sk, sw, sp, str, spl
- around 7-8 years: th, z, and cluster sounds sm, sl, thr, skw, spr, skr.
Most children make mistakes in their speech during the first few years of speech development. But by about three years, most children can be understood by their main caregivers, siblings and peers.
Spotting speech disorders
If you’re worried that your child might have a speech disorder, think about how often people who don’t know your child have trouble understanding what your child says.
When a child is two, an unfamiliar person should understand about half to three-quarters of what the child is saying.
When a child is three and older, an unfamiliar person should understand the child most of the time, even though the child will probably still say some sounds and words differently from adults.
Some speech disorders happen when a child has a physical problem (like a cleft palate) that makes it hard for the child to create the sounds of speech. Others have trouble because of a hearing impairment. But most children have no specific reason for their speech disorder.
Speech disorders are different from language delay
. Children with speech disorders can understand words and sentences well and form sentences correctly. Children with language delay might use very few words for their age or not understand what you say.
When to seek help for speech disorders
If your child has a speech disorder, you’ll probably need help from a professional.
It’s best to consider seeking help if your child:
- sounds very immature for her age – that is, she uses only a few speech sounds or patterns
- doesn’t pronounce words the way you would expect for her age
- gets frustrated about speaking – for example, she gets upset when she isn’t understood, has to repeat sounds or she stutters
- has hearing loss.
Where to seek help for your child’s speech
If you have any worries about your child’s speech development, it’s a very good idea to talk with your GP, paediatrician or child and family health nurse or your child’s teacher.
These professionals might refer you to a speech pathologist, or you can visit a privately practising speech pathologist yourself. You might be referred to an audiologist if there’s a possibility that your child’s speech problems are caused by a hearing impairment.
Helping your child’s speech development
It’s normal for young children to pronounce words differently from adults. There’s no need to correct them every time they make a mistake – this can be frustrating for everyone.
If you want to encourage your child, gentle reminders can help your child pronounce words the right way. For example, if your child says, ‘I saw the tat’, you could reply, ‘Where was the cat? What was the cat doing?’ This involves repeating the missing or different sound – ‘cat’ – with a slight emphasis.
If your child’s speech is really hard to understand, here are some ideas for helping your child to communicate:
- Ask your child to show you what he’s talking about – for example, ask him to point to the thing that he wants.
- Ask simple questions to get more information about what your child is trying to say – for example, ‘Are you telling me about something that happened today? Did it happen at kinder?’ Then let your child tell you the rest of the story.
- Encourage your child to talk slowly (speech can be more difficult to understand when children are rushing to tell you something). Let your child know you’re listening, and that she has all the time in the world to tell you.
What not to worry about with speech development
Although children might be able to make the right sounds, they might not use them correctly in words in the early years. And while they’re learning to talk, children simplify adult speech to make it easier to say.
This means you probably don’t need to worry if your child:
- substitutes sounds in words (‘dod’ instead of ‘dog’)
- drops sounds from the end of words (‘ha’ instead of ‘hat’)
- simplifies difficult sound combinations (‘side’ instead of ‘slide’)
- drops syllables (‘boon’ instead of ‘balloon’).
It’s OK if your three-year-old is still doing all of these things, as long as you can understand what he’s saying. But if your child is making lots of errors and you can’t understand what he’s saying, it’s a good idea to see a speech pathologist.