Most young children have some trouble with speech – that is, with pronouncing some sounds and words. It can be hard to get little lips and tongues and other parts of the mouth making the rights 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, as well as 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 your child.
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 that 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 (such as a cleft palate) that makes it hard for them 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.
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:
- is six months or more behind the approximate age ranges for using speech sounds
- uses speech patterns that are delayed for her age, or speech sounds that are immature compared with peers
- gets frustrated about speaking – for example, she gets upset when she isn’t understood, has to repeat sounds or she stutters
- has hearing loss.
Children develop speech at different rates. But you know your child best. You should seek help if you have any worries about your child’s speech development.
Where to seek help for your child’s speech
If you think your child has a speech disorder, consult a speech pathologist. You can visit a privately practising speech pathologist yourself, or a GP, paediatrician or child and family health nurse can help you find one.
To locate a speech pathologist in your area, you can visit Speech Pathology Australia’s Find a Speech Pathologist page.
If your child does have a speech disorder, a speech pathologist might suggest some therapy sessions, either one on one with you and your child, or in a group with other children. The speech pathologist will also give you things you can do at home to help your child.
The speech pathologist should be able to answer any questions you have about speech and language development.
Audiologists can help with speech disorders if your child has a hearing problem. They will check your child’s hearing. If it is impaired, they can talk to you about how this might affect your child’s communication.
Other professionals you might want to consult for advice include your child’s child care educator, teacher (preschool or school), or your GP.
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?’ Repeat the missing or different sound with a slight emphasis.
If your child’s speech is really difficult 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 her 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 he 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 are 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.
Speech disorder or language delay?
Speech disorders are different from language delay:
- Children with speech disorders might have good language skills – that is, they use and understand words well. But they do have difficulty pronouncing the sounds in words. This makes their speech difficult to understand.
- Children with language delay might be using very few words for their age range, or they might not seem to understand what you say.
Children with speech disorders don’t necessarily have a language delay, but they can have both, or another communication impairment.