Speech Sound Development

What’s Normal And What’s Not

As adults, we often feel that it is easy to say all of the speech sounds correctly, and that young children who don’t do so might be lazy, or have just developed bad habits.  However speech sound production is a very complex process.  It requires very specific coordination of movements of the tongue, teeth, lips and other muscles.  It also requires the brain to send the correct messages to these speech organs.

Speech sounds develop gradually as children grow and develop in other areas.  Many sounds are difficult for young children to produce and they may have difficulty with some sounds, even after they enter junior kindergarten.  Children might be able to produce some sounds on their own, but will have difficulty, if these sounds are produced together with other sounds.  The order of sounds in a word will affect how easy or difficult they are for children.  This can sometimes be frustrating for parents who feel that the child can produce the sound but doesn’t always do so.   

The most common challenging sounds for children under 3, include, /th/, /l/, /k/, /f/, /s/, /r/.  At this age, difficulty with sounds is normal and some children may have difficulty with sounds not listed above. 

After the age of three, we might see continued difficulties with the production of /s/, /r/, /th/, /sh/, and /ch/.  After three, we do expect that children will not drop sounds, but might substitute one sound for another.  Therefore, we might hear the word “htop” for “stop”, but would not expect the child to say “top” for “stop”, dropping the first sound in the word.  This reflects an earlier stage of development.

At three, in spite of some of these speech sound difficulties, all children should be understandable to even unfamiliar listeners.  If this is not the case, and if they are dropping sounds rather than substituting sounds, a referral to tykeTALK would be appropriate.  You can refer your child to tykeTALK by completing the Online Referral Form or by calling 519-663-0273.   

How can you help your child when they are having trouble with speech sounds? 

When your child produces a sound incorrectly in a word, repeat the word back, saying the sound correctly while emphasizing it (eg. Your child says: “I am free years old.” .  You reply: “Yes, you are three years old.” . Your child says: “There’s a top sign.” You reply: “Yes, I see the stop sign.”).

Don’t ask your child to repeat sounds after you, unless your child is seeing a Speech-Language Pathologist and you have been shown how to do this.  For some children, this may work, but for many it causes frustration and may make them feel self-conscious about their speech.  Remember, speech production is very complex.

Always say the sound correctly for your child.  At any age, children should not be hearing “baby talk”.  They should always hear speech produced clearly and correctly.  Although some of the speech of very young children may sound cute, we do not want to encourage this, either by imitating it or reinforcing it. Your ultimate goal is for your child to speak clearly and confidently.