My toddler’s speech isn’t 100% clear, and his preschool teachers say that they have a hard time understanding him. Should I be concerned?
Let’s set the scene: Your child walks up to you and says “mohmik peas,” and at first you don’t have a clue what they are trying to tell you! But by using the clues in your environment and by observing their gestures, you eventually figure out that they requested “more milk please.” You were able to meet your child’s needs (getting them more milk) even though they did not produce all of the correct sounds in each word. So are their speech sound (i.e. articulation) skills something to be concerned about?
As your child produces new words and phrases you might be noticing that their speech is not 100% clear. Your child’s speech clarity, also referred to as intelligibility, is your child’s current production of sounds which impacts how others can understand them. Intelligibility for a two year old should be approximately 50% to an unfamiliar person. By three-years of age your child should be approximately 75% intelligible, meaning that you should understand at least seven out of every ten sentences that they produce. It is important to remember that as your child is learning how to talk they may not sound exactly like an adult would, and that’s typical! In general, your child should be using a variety of consonants and vowels at two- to three-years of age but there is variability speech sound development.
Speech sound development: What should I expect?
Not all speech sounds are alike! Some speech sounds are considered early developing sounds, while others might develop when your child is older due to the complexity of oral movements required to make that sound. Early developing sounds include: “p, b, m, n, w, t, d, h.” Later developing sounds include: “sh, s, z, l, r, th.” Later developing sounds may be substituted with a different sound at two- to three-years of age due to their motoric complexity.
“So you’re saying that not all speech sounds need to be mastered by three-years of age?” That’s right! At three-years of age it is possible that your child may be substituting different sounds in real words, such as “wed” for “red,” and this is age-appropriate! At the age of three, a “w” for “r” substitution would be considered a developmental error, or an error that does not require direct therapeutic intervention. The majority of developmental errors will correct themselves as your child’s language and articulation skills develop.
What are phonological processes?
Phonological processes are patterns children use to simplify their speech as they are learning how to speak. For instance, your child may be saying “back” for “black.” Each phonological process is considered age-appropriate until it persists past a set age of elimination (the age in which the majority of children no longer present with that specific error pattern). The majority of children will correct their own speech and no longer use phonological process substitutions as their language and speech sounds develop. (Please see resources listed below to view an age-appropriate phonological processes chart.)
Is your child ready for articulation therapy?
Articulation therapy uses a hierarchical approach to master target speech sounds. For instance, you may first practice the sound “f” in isolation, or by itself, and then progress to practicing “f” with a vowel such as “fee” or “foe.” Articulation therapy requires your child to have the ability to follow directions given by the therapist, tolerate a variety of cues to help support appropriate production of their target speech sound, pay attention to the therapist, and imitate what the therapist is saying. At two years of age, your child’s attention span is shorter than a three- or four-year-old’s attention span, and they may become frustrated by some of the direct cueing provided during traditional articulation therapy. One critical component of articulation therapy is avoiding negative practice, or practicing your child’s target speech sound the incorrect way. Your child’s therapist wants to avoid negative practice because they want to support and encourage the accurate production of the speech sound and not have your child continue to practice incorrectly. A child who is not ready for articulation therapy is a child who is unable to follow directions provided by a therapist, unable to pay attention to a therapist’s face, or is unable to imitate what a therapist is saying.
Should my two-year old be receiving articulation therapy?
If you feel like you understand your child approximately 50% of the time, but notice that there are some sounds that are not the same as an adult’s production they may be using age-appropriate substitutions and/or phonological processes. For instance, if your child is deleting the end of words (final consonant deletion) at two years of age this is considered an age-appropriate phonological process that is typically eliminated around three years of age. In addition, at two years of age children are still learning how to use language and are increasing their phrase length and vocabulary, which are both age-appropriate skills to promote and target with a two-year old. If at two years of age you feel like your child is not using a variety of vowels or consonants, or you feel like producing speech sounds is effortful, your child may be a candidate for a speech and language evaluation.
So what can you do to help support your two-year-old’s speech intelligibility? Your mouth is a great cue for your child! Several early developing speech sounds can be seen on the lips and this visual cue makes it easier for your child to imitate you. For instance, “p” and “b” both require your lips to come together before making sound. Children learn a lot by what they see, so hold objects and toys near your face to encourage them to look at how your mouth is making sounds. You can also talk slowly and prolong different sounds to help your child imitate new sounds they may not be using such as “mmmma-mmmma” for ‘mama.’
Should my three-year old be receiving articulation therapy?
If your child is three years old or older and you feel like their intelligibility is less than 75%, have difficulty producing early developing speech sounds, have a limited variety of vowels, or are using phonological processes that are no longer considered typical for their age, your child may be a candidate for speech and language therapy. If you have concerns regarding your child’s articulation skills, talk to your speech-language pathologist or schedule an appointment for an evaluation.
Some things you can try at home include:
- Encourage your child to look at your mouth! Your mouth is a great cue for your child to look at as you model a new sound.
- Model the word with the correct sound for your child to hear the difference. For instance, if your child says “bid” for “big,” you can model the correct word “big” after your child’s attempt.
- Tap or clap out syllables to promote the inclusion of all syllables in a word. Tapping or clapping can help your child know the exact number of syllables in the word, which can facilitate inclusion of all syllables within a target word. A word is much easier to understand when all of the syllables are produced clearly and do not run into the next word in a sentence!
- Give your child two verbal choices to choose from if you’re having a difficult time understanding your child. By providing your child with two verbal choices for them to imitate you know what they are trying to say, even if their sounds don’t come out just right!. Also, it may be easier for your child to imitate one of the two choices you give rather than produce the word on their own.
- If you notice that their speech sounds are ok in single words, but are incorrect when they try to produce a full sentence, try to decrease the number of words in your child’s sentence and have the imitate it back to you. For instance, your child attempts to produce a four-word phrase such as “puppy drink more water,” however, there are multiple words that are challenging to understand. You can model a shorter, three-word phrase such as “drink more water” to aid with increased intelligibility.
Visit Mommy Speech Therapy to download the phonological processes chart!
Questions or concerns?
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s speech and language development, please contact us at email@example.com or 773-332-9439.
Samantha Labus, MS, CCC-SLP
Fabiano-Smith, L., & Goldstein, B. A. (2010). Early-, Middle-, and Late-Developing Sounds in Monolingual and Bilingual Children: An Exploratory Investigation. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology,19(1), 66-77. doi:10.1044/1058-0360(2009/08-0036)
Sander, E. K. (1972). When are Speech Sounds Learned? Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders,37(1), 55-63. doi:10.1044/jshd.3701.55
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