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Most children up to about five years have trouble pronouncing some sounds and words. It can be hard to coordinate little lips, tongues, jaws and lungs to make the rights sounds at the right times. But some speech troubles can be the sign of a speech disorder.

Spotting a speech disorder

All children pronounce words and sounds incorrectly. Most children will master certain sounds by certain ages. If they don’t, it’s possible that they have a speech disorder.

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.

Speech disorder or language delay?
A speech disorder is different from a 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 delays might be using very few words for their age range, or they might not seem to understand what you say.
Children with speech disorders do not necessarily have a language delay, but they can have both, or another communication disorder. For more information, read our article on language delay.

When to seek help for your child’s speech

If your child has a speech disorder, you will probably need help from a professional. But how do you know when there’s a problem?

The best guide is to 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 that child about half to three-quarters of the time.
  • 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.

It’s best to consider seeking help if your child:

  • is having trouble moving or coordinating her mouth. She might have trouble eating, chewing or swallowing (for example, she might cough or choke on food or drink a lot), or she might drool excessively
  • is six months or more behind the approximate age ranges for using speech sounds
  • has speech that sounds very immature compared with other children the same age
  • gets frustrated about speaking - for example, he gets upset when he isn’t understood, has to repeat sounds or he stutters
  • has hearing loss.
It’s important to remember that children develop language 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

Speech pathologists
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 health nurse will be able to 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 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
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 worker, 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 is 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.

How speech develops

It takes about seven years for children to learn to pronounce speech sounds the same way adults do. Different children develop speech at different rates. In general, most children should make few mistakes with the listed speech sounds at the ages shown in the table below.

Speech sounds by age

Age Sound
By around 3 b, p, m, n, h, d, k, g, ng (sing), t, w, f, y
By around 4-5 f, sh, zh (measure), ch, j, s, and cluster sounds tw, kw, gl, bl
By around 6 l, r, v, ng, and cluster sounds pl, kl, kr, fl, tr, st, dr, br, fr, gr, sn, sk, sw, sp, str, spl
By around 7-8 th, z, and cluster sounds sm, sl, thr, skw, spr, skr

Although children might be able to make the right sounds, they might not use them correctly in words in the early stages. While they are learning to talk, children simplify adult speech to make it easier to say. They might:

  • substitute sounds in words (‘dod’ instead of ‘dog’)
  • drop sounds from the end of words (‘ha’ instead of ‘hat’)
  • simplify difficult sound combinations (‘side’ instead of ‘slide’)
  • drop syllables (‘boon’ instead of ‘balloon’).

Generally, it is typical for:

  • a child aged 3-4 to say ‘lellow’ instead of ‘yellow’, ‘bacuum’ instead of ‘vaccuum’
  • a child aged 4-5 to say ‘wun’ instead of ‘run’ or ‘fumb’ instead of ‘thumb’.
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  • Last Updated 14-06-2010
  • Last Reviewed 14-06-2010
  • Acknowledgements Article developed in collaboration with Associate Professor Jennifer Hudson, Centre for Emotional Health, Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, NSW.
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