The most common reason parents seek advice about their child’s speech and language development is because he or she cannot pronounce certain sounds.

September and the start of the new school year sees many toddlers and children heading to nursery and school for the first time. Early in the school year there are always a rush of referrals to speech and language therapy for children who are having difficulty saying certain sounds, or whose speech is unclear.

Why do children struggle with certain words?

Speech sound difficulties may occur for a number of different reasons, but very often there is no known cause.

Obvious causes may be physical (e.g. a cleft palate), neurological (e.g. cerebral palsy) or sensory (e.g. hearing loss). Other causes, for example auditory processing difficulties, are less obvious and require specialist assessment to identify. 

This article will focus on speech sound development: what to expect and when. It will also help you identify when your child may have a persistent difficulty with no obvious underlying cause, which can require advice and intervention from a speech and language therapist.

What sounds should you expect first?

Babies start life experimenting with all the sounds the human vocal tract can make, including blowing raspberries, clicking and trilling. By about six months your baby will have limited the sounds he or she makes, preferring to babble using the ones heard in his or her own language.

A baby born into the San bush people, for example, will continue to use clicks which are a speech sound in the Khoisan language. This sound is not used in many languages so babies lose this sound in their speech repertoire early on

Instead, your baby is likely to show a preference for bouncy sounds (known as plosives), for example p, b, d and g. These are the first sounds you are likely to hear produced correctly in your child’s speech.

Next your child will begin to fine tune the production of the long, blowy sounds we call fricatives. These include f, s and sh. Your child will gradually build up a wider repertoire of sounds and begin to produce them more accurately.

Some sounds, however, take a lot longer to develop, for example “ch” as in “chimney”; “dg” as in “bridge” and “r” as in “roar”. Children may struggle to produce these sounds until the age of five.

Other later sounds to appear are consonant clusters, for example, “br” as in “brick”, “sp” as in “spoon and “tr” as in “train”. Also, “th” as in “think” and “with” may be produced as “fink” and “wiv” as late as six to seven years. “s” maybe lisped to “th” up to seven years, especially if your child is missing his or her top teeth.

Why does my child pronounce certain sounds incorrectly?

Speech sounds follow a developmental order and so do the errors children make.

I mentioned “d” is often an early sound to develop, but it is also often effected by a developmental process called “backing”. This is when your child moves sounds that should be made at the front of the mouth to the back, so “d” sounds like “g” and “t” sounds like “k”.

Another common developmental process is called “fronting”! Children who front will produce “k” as “t” and “g” as “d”. To make matters even more confusing your child may think and feel he or she is making the correct sound.

You may already have experienced a scenario where your child says, “Look, a tat!” You say, “It’s not tat, it’s a cat.” To which your child looks slightly confused and replies, “I said, tat”. This is because your child feels a difference in where he or she produces a “t” compared to a “k”, it is just you cannot hear the difference.

To call the developmental processes described as “fronting” and “backing” is an oversimplification. This is one reason why speech and language therapists always advise not to correct a child making a speech sound error but to model back the correct pronunciation. So when your child says, “Look a tat!” You say, “That’s right, it’s a cat”, emphasising the “k”.

In a previous My Baba piece I wrote that a child’s speech should be easily intelligible to an unfamiliar adult by the age of three. However this does not mean a child aged three will be able to produce all speech sounds correctly.

He or she may make lots of speech sound errors and your child may even miss out some sounds completely. This is known as consonant deletion and is a common developmental feature.

Many children will go through a phase of missing out the first or last sound of a word, for example, “cat” becomes “at” or “dog” becomes “do”. Your child may also reduce the syllables of longer words, for example, “banana” becomes “nana” or “elephant” becomes “efant”. Most importantly, by the age of three, unfamiliar adults should understand what your child is saying.

Should I consider speech therapy for my child?

Speech sound development is far more than just the ability to articulate sounds clearly. It is a complicated process of input and output. A speech and language therapist will always ask about your child’s hearing.

Assuming your child’s hearing is okay, your child’s difficulty may still lie with how he or she perceives sounds – the input part of speech development. In speech and language assessment and therapy, the therapist may ask your child to listen for the difference between sounds before asking him or her to say the sounds. In therapy, this type of intervention can sometimes take a few weeks, but do not be disheartened as once your child is able to hear the difference, speaking the difference often follows very quickly.

When possible, speech therapy is offered in small groups with other children. Speech sound work is repetitive and however many games your therapist can conjure, ultimately it can become boring. Even where children have slightly different speech targets engaging in group sessions can make interventions more fun and equally effective.

Speech and language therapists often discharge children from therapy once they can say a sound on its’ own and in a word, but not in sentences. Parents often express frustration at this, but be reassured that the next stage, using the sound day-to-day in conversations will happen.

How can I continue supporting my child’s language development?

You can carry on supporting your child by playing games like creating silly sentences and nonsense rhymes with words that have the target sound or finding words with the target sound in nursery rhymes, songs, stories and picture books. Remember you are listening for the sound not the written phoneme, for example, “c” and “k” are the same sound in cap and kite, but they are different sounds in cycle and kind and “th” is a different sound in “think” and “this”.

A final word on speech sound difficulties is speech and language are inextricably linked. It is possible your child is referred to speech and language therapy because of unclear speech and the speech and language therapist will want to assess language skills as well. This is good practice and your therapist will be able to advice and support your child more effectively with a whole picture of his or her speech and language skills.

Read next: 

Is My Toddler Speaking Enough? What To Expect In The First Few Years Of Speech And Language

Child Language Development: What To Expect And When

About The Author

Amanda Griffiths
Paediatric Speech & Language Therapist

Amanda is a paediatric speech and language therapist and education consultant, with over 20 years of experience. She runs a consultancy service across the UK and Middle East, where she lived for seven years. Amanda is passionate about enhancing children’s communication skills and has specialist experience working with children with complex needs, including eating and drinking difficulties. Alongside her clinical practice Amanda provides training, supervision, clinical based research and service reviews for nurseries, schools and other organisations. She works as an education consultant to a number of professional, charitable and children’s media organisations, including the Royal College of Speech Language Therapists, the Down Syndrome Association and Tractor Ted. Amanda advises on the development and production across all platforms of children’s media from film and TV to web content and books. From a personal perspective Amanda has four sons, three who have dyslexia and one who has Down syndrome. To find out more or get in touch please visit www.amandagriffiths.uk.

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