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 (as in ‘sing’), t, w, f, y
- around 4-5 years: sh, zh, ch, j, s and cluster sounds tw, kw, gl, bl
- around 6 years: l, r, v 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 3 years, most children can be understood by their main caregivers, siblings and peers.
Spotting speech disorders
If you’re concerned 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 2½ years old, an unfamiliar person should understand about half of what the child is saying.
When a child is 4-5 years old, an unfamiliar person should understand the child about three-quarters of the time. The child will probably still say some sounds and words differently from adults.
When a child is 6-7 years old, an unfamiliar person should understand almost everything the child says. The child might make some errors in the ‘th’ sound in words like ‘this’ or ‘that’. They might also have trouble saying longer words like ‘hippopotamus’.
Some speech disorders happen when a child has a physical problem like a cleft palate, which makes it hard for the child to create the sounds of speech. Others have trouble because of deafness or hearing loss. 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 phrases and sentences correctly. Children with language delay might use very few words for their age or not understand what you say.
When to get 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 their age or uses only a few speech sounds
- doesn’t pronounce words the way you’d expect for their age
- gets frustrated or upset when you don’t understand them, has to repeat sounds or stutters
- has hearing loss.
Where to get help for children’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 private speech pathologist yourself. You might be referred to an audiologist if there’s a possibility that your child’s speech problems are caused by hearing loss.
How to help with children’s speech development
Young children typically pronounce words differently from adults. There’s no need to correct them every time they make a mistake.
If you want to encourage your child to form words the right way, gentle reminders can help. 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 they’re talking about. For example, ask your child to point to the thing that they want.
- 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. Let your child know you’re listening and that they can have as much time as they like 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 young child:
- substitutes sounds in words (‘lellow’ instead of ‘yellow’)
- simplifies difficult sound combinations (‘side’ instead of ‘slide’)
- drops syllables (‘puter’ instead of ‘computer’).
It’s OK if your 3-year-old is still doing these things, as long as you can understand what they’re saying. But if your child is making a lot of errors and you can’t understand what they’re saying, it’s a good idea to see a speech pathologist.