Christine Schenk, MS, CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist

Please discuss general children’s articulation development – what is typical vs. what isn’t?

There is often a false belief that any child who is difficult to understand is delayed in his or her speech sound development and may need to see a speech therapist. This happens even more often when a child has an older sibling(s) who developed all of his or her speech sounds at an early age. In general, most young children are exhibiting age-appropriate sound errors and need just a little more time for speech development.

There are many ways to determine whether or not your child has age-appropriate speech development, the easiest and most effective being to learn at what ages most children master certain speech sounds.

Speech sounds, like other developmental milestones i.e. walking and feeding, are expected to be learned, practiced, and then mastered at certain times throughout typical childhood development. The chart below indicates at what age each of the English speech sounds are developed by 85% of children. Every sound can be used in the beginning (initial), middle (medial), or end (final) positions of words, all represented on the chart. Some sounds are more difficult to make in the initial position versus final position, therefore are mastered at a later age (for example see sound /n/).

In addition to knowing what age each of the sounds are developed, it is also important to note that some children have patterns in their speech errors (i.e. /t/ for /k/ as in ‘tat’ for ‘kat’). These error patterns also have their ages in which they naturally disappear. Sound pattern errors are a natural part of development and will dissipate as the appropriate sounds are developed as the child learns and grows.

The word “intelligibility” is one that is often used around the speech therapy world. Intelligibility is described as, “an informal measure of how much of a child’s speech is understood.” In other words, when your child speaks, how much do you understand? How much does an unfamiliar listener understand?  This quick chart below shares exactly how much of your child’s speech should be understood by familiar listeners (i.e. mom/dad/siblings) and at what age.

Example 1: If your child is 3.5-years-old and you are able to understand a little over half of what they say, then continue providing more time for natural speech development.

Example 2: If your child is 5-years-old and you are only able to understand 20% of his or her speech, it would be recommended that you refer to your Primary Care Physician (PCP).

When do children begin to develop their articulation/speech skills?

All of our speech sounds are created through the muscle movements in our mouth using our tongue, palate, lips, jaw, and cheeks. Just like learning any other repetitive muscle movement (i.e. riding a bike), learning new speech sounds takes a lot of practice. Children begin developing their sounds right at birth through listening to their caregiver’s speech. When babies begin cooing, vocalizing vowels (‘aa’, ‘ee’, ‘oo’), and babbling, they are exploring the muscles in their mouth and at times attempting to communicate their wants and needs with their caregiver. From birth until the age of 7-8 years old, children are continually gaining muscle memory, strength, and coordination for speech sounds.

How can a parent tell if their child is developing his/her articulation skills appropriately?

The best way to know if a child is developing his or her speech sounds appropriately is to utilize resources, such as the chart above, that give you information as to what sounds are developed at what age. Always remember not to panic the moment your child has sound errors! Begin paying close attention to what words/sounds he or she is saying incorrectly, and refer to the chart to determine whether or not you need a referral for speech.

Can you share tips for parents who have a child that is struggling with articulation skills?

If you have a child with developmentally appropriate sound errors (ex. 3-years-old and not saying /r/ sounds properly), the best thing to do for that child is to be patient and supportive. By constantly correcting a child's speech sounds before his or her muscles are ready to produce it, a parent can accidently create an atmosphere of frustration and anxiety around speech development.

In addition to providing a patient atmosphere in which sound errors are okay, it is also important to recognize when your child’s speech sounds are no longer developmentally appropriate. As your child begins to grow individually and academically, inappropriate sound errors can cause difficulty communicating, as well as adverse educational impacts.

An example of an educational impact would be:

*If your child is 9-years-old and pronouncing the /l/ sound with a /w/, he or she may be repeating the word to themselves incorrectly and in turn have difficulty learning to spell any word with the /l/ sound (ex. spelling "wamp" instead of lamp). Prolonged sound errors can impact your child's understanding of letter sound awareness and reading.

How do you know when or if your child is ready/needs to see a speech therapist?

The amount of easy to access information and free materials on the internet is an amazing way to understand if your child needs to see a speech therapist.

The process of knowing whether or not your child needs therapy begins at home. By paying close attention to what sounds your child is having difficulty saying, you are able to find out important information about whether a formal evaluation is warranted. If you notice that your child consistently substitutes sounds (ex. “hout” for house), then you can refer to resources such as the above chart and find at what age most children develop their /s/ sound in the final position of words.

Please keep in mind that there is a wide range of what is considered normal development. If your child is well outside that range of normal development, then ask your PCP for a referral for a speech therapy evaluation.

What to expect if your child starts speech therapy.

If you have a child who begins speech therapy to help with acquiring age-appropriate speech sounds, the number one thing to expect is to be doing at-home activities. Because speech sounds require complex muscle movements in the mouth, it is very difficult to learn and master new sounds without consistent at-home practice. Research directly indicates that the more you practice at home, the faster your child will develop his or her speech sounds. Speech therapy aims to give you the foundational skills and tools to be able to practice outside of therapy as well.

To learn more, below are recommended references:

References are for informational purposes only and they are not intended to replace physician and/or speech therapy treatment(s).