Updated: May 12, 2021
"I can usually understand what my 3-year-old son is saying, but other people have trouble understanding him. Should I be worried?"
Questions like this are common for parents. Maybe a child’s speech isn’t as clear as others the same age. Maybe it’s hard to understand some words they say. Maybe they leave off the end sound of words.
There are many variations in how speech sounds develop. It can be tricky to sort out what’s typical and what's a concern.
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are trained in how speech sounds develop. They have many methods for determining typical development from delayed or disordered development. It never hurts to get an evaluation from an expert when you have concerns. On the other hand, sometimes some basic information can help to dispel your worries.
INFORMATION FOR PARENTS
You can look at two factors that relate to a child’s speech sound development: developmental sequence and child’s age.
Developmental Sequence. Some speech sounds are easier for very young children to make, and some require more growth and practice before they're made clearly. There’s a predictable order of development that speech sounds tend to follow. For example, it’s easier to make sounds with the lips (like b and m) that it is to make sounds with a precise tongue placement (like r and l).
There’s also a predictable pattern of errors that most children make. For example, it’s typical for children to use a w in place of r and l when they begin to use words. This error pattern fades out over several years.
Age. Since sounds develop in a typical order, they match up with certain age ranges. SLPs have studied groups of children at each age level to develop lists, called norms, of what skills are expected at certain ages. Anyone can look at a list of norms to get an idea of the typical pattern of development. Download this table that shows the ages each speech sound is expected to develop.
Tests used by an SLP go beyond just telling the range of months that are average for a skill. Tests are standardized, which means a large group of children are studied. Statistics are used to measure the average range of development and decide when the number of errors is significantly outside the average range.
HOW CAN PARENTS HELP THEIR CHILD’S SPEECH SOUND DEVELOPMENT?
Some children are sensitive to the way their speech is corrected by a well-intentioned adult. Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of preschoolers who don’t like practicing their speech sounds. When I ask them to look at my mouth or to imitate me, they resist. They might turn away, act nervous, get out of their chair or shut down completely. In those cases I work indirectly to help them get more comfortable, doing activities that encourage them to talk but don’t seem quite so much like a “say this” kind of activity. There are several ways you can help your child develop their speech sounds. It’s tricky to teach a child a new way to make a sound. SLPs know what’s involved and techniques that will fit an individual child's needs. Instead of directly teaching a new sound, I recommend that parents use indirect methods that can help speed up a child’s speech skills. Here are some methods you can try.
Pick only one sound as the target.
Use the table to choose the earliest developing sound that your child is not making. Focus on that sound for at least a month, using one or more of the activities below. If your child has several sound errors, you could choose a second early sound to focus on the following month. Go back to the first sound for the next month.
Model the sound without expecting imitation.
Modeling means giving a demonstration. When you model words that use the target sound you are helping your child notice how it sounds and giving them extra practice listening to it. This is called auditory training. You’re helping your child improve their ability to tell the difference between this and other sounds. Pick one or two times a day when you can model the sound for your child. You might read a book that uses the sound a lot or where the main character’s name starts with the sound. Play with a toy that uses the sound or use a verb like go or jump with several objects that start with the sound.
When you say the word, say the sound a little louder (go) or stretch it out a little to emphasize how it sounds (ssssing). Don’t repeat the sound like g-g-g-go or s-s-s-sing. Or if your child is leaving off sounds at the end of words, emphasize the final sounds a little (like “hop on pop”).
Play with rhyming word pairs.
Notice the sound that your child substitutes for your target sound. Think of four or five sets of rhyming words that are only different with that one sound. You’ll need to have a picture of each word.
Finding rhyming words that you can put in a picture is a little trickier than it sounds. Double check your list to make sure that one sound is the only difference between the words. Two examples are below. The first set is for a child who leaves out final k. The second set is for a child who substitutes d for g. pea peak doe go
bee beak date gate
lay lake dull gull
buy bike do goo
O oak dot got Your child might not know the picture when you start. When you start using the pictures, show each picture and explain what it is. When your child understands the pictures, do a pointing activity. Put one pair on the table. Say a word and ask your child to point to its picture. If they get it correct, they keep the pair. If they make an error, put the pair on the bottom of your stack so you can present it again later. Always start with this pointing activity.
After your child points to all pictures correctly, go on to a matching game. Put all the pictures face down on the table. Turn over one picture and name it. Then turn over the second picture and name it. Always model the word when you turn over a picture. If the pictures match, you keep the pair and then it’s the next person’s turn.
Have your child name each picture when they take their turn. Don’t make them say a word over if they mispronounce it. You should repeat the word(s) for them so they hear the correct model: “Yes, dot - got. They rhyme.”
Find one word where your child uses the target sound correctly.
It may take a while before you hear a word where your child uses the sound correctly. When you hear one, make this their “magic word.”
Make a little picture book that gives lots of chances for your child to use the magic word in short phrases. The first set of phrases below is for the magic word cake (using final k) and the second set is for the magic word go (initial g).
big cake go car
little cake go bus
white cake go horse
yellow cake go dog
dad's cake go mommy
my cake go Jimmy You’ll start out by reading the book to your child. Using a repeated pattern like the examples helps your child learn how to “read” the book. Encourage them to read along with you and later to read it on their own.