Speech sound development

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Key points to remember

  • every child develops at a different rate
  • there is a wide range of what is considered typical for when a child can use different speech sounds

When do speech sounds develop?

There is a wide range of what is considered typical for when a child can use different speech sounds. The ability to use different speech sounds usually develops in an order related to how hard the sounds are to make.

  • some consonant sounds such as 'b' and 'm', are easy to make and are usually among the first to be achieved
  • more complex movements are required for sounds such as 'ch' and blends of two sounds like 'sp' and 'fl' - these sounds generally develop later on
  • many vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u) are used by two and a half years; all should be achieved by four years. (Children from non-English speaking backgrounds may carry an accent on the vowel sounds)

The chart below shows the range of ages at which most children are able to make consonant (non-vowel) sounds. The end of each bar indicates the age by which most children are able to make each sound.

You can view the chart as a pdf file which may be clearer:

What are some of the sound errors a child may make?

Individual sound errors
The types of errors a child may make include:

  • changing a sound to another English sound, such as 'car' to 'tar'; 'fire' to 'pire'; 'sun' to 'dun'
  • distorting a sound to a non-first language sound, such as a 'slushy' 's' or a nasal 'snort'. The substitution of a non-first language sound is an error that does not usually resolve by itself

Patterns of sound changes
As well as having difficulties with individual sounds, children often use patterns of 'shortcuts' to make words easier for them to say. There are many different types of these patterns - you may have heard the following in a young child's speech:

  •  leaving out the final consonant in a word; for example, 'ca' for 'cat'
  • dropping unstressed syllables; for example, 'nana' for 'banana'; 'sketti' for 'spaghetti'
  • repeating the first syllable of a word; for example, 'bobo' for 'bottle'

These three patterns usually stop by the time a child is three and a half years of age. Some patterns may last for longer, such as reducing sound blends to one sound; for example, 'pug' for 'plug'.

When is a child's speech usually understood?

Sometimes a child may be able to produce a range of sounds within typical age limits, but overall it is still hard to understand them. The following is a guide to the approximate level of intelligibility expected (or the degree to which their speech can be understood) :

  • by age two years: 25 percent intelligible - understood by closest family members
  • by age three years: understood by adults who live or work with children
  • by age four years: 90 percent intelligible - understood by wider population

Can problems with the muscles of the mouth sometimes lead to speech difficulties?

The muscles used for speech (such as the lips and tongue) are the same as those required for sucking, eating and saliva control. Children with speech difficulties sometimes have difficulties with the strength, movement and / or co-ordination of these muscles.

What are some ideas to help my child with speech sounds?

  • Remember that learning to use speech sounds takes time and there is a natural sequence of development. A child who is making speech sound errors is not being naughty or lazy.
  • You can correct your child's sounds quite naturally within a conversation. When you hear an error, repeat the word correctly within the conversation so that your child can compare their pronunciation with yours.
    For example: Child: "I see a bish"
    Adult: "Wow - what a big fish!"
    You can emphasise the error sound if you like; for example, 'fish',  but your child is not required to repeat the word or produce the sound correctly. You are simply giving them a good speech model.
  • Remember, responding to what your child is saying is more important than responding to how it is said.
  • Have fun playing with sounds.

Some fun activities to promote speech sound development

All the sounds that are used in English can be practised in play. The more these sounds are practised and refined, the clearer they will become in speech.

You might like to try some of the following activities with your child as part of other activities you're involved in together. Exaggerate both the sounds and your facial expression to give a clear model for your child to copy. Remember, you are making the sound, not saying the letter (so, for example, ‘mmm' not ‘em').

You can also view the following as a pdf file:

B

  • a boat that goes bbb as it chugs along
  • a ball that bounces bbb
  • try peek-a-boo or something that says 'boo'

P

  • making a paper person bend over by whispering a 'p' sound
  • blowing out candles
  • blowing bubbles

M

  • a car or trolley that goes mmm  
  • things that taste yummy - mmm 

T

  • tapping a hammer on anything
  • a dripping tap goes ttt
  • a ticking clock

D

  • pretend to be banging a drum ddd

F

  • imitate a rabbit's teeth fff
  • a sky rocket as it fizzes up fff

V

  • a noisy plane, truck or car goes vvvvvv

CH

  • the train goes ch ch ch toot toot

SH

  • tell people to be quiet'
  • look the baby's sleeping - sh

S

  • a snake sound
  • the sound of air coming out of a tyre
  • filling up a car with petrol

Z

  • bees or other flying insects can go zzz

G

  • a noisy drinker goes ggg
  • give dolls a drink or pretend to drink from a cup going ggg

K

  • the click of a camera as a photo is taken

Other sound sequences can be used to practice vowel sounds
and help younger children to gain control over their lips and tongues:

  • animal noises
  • phone ringing - brring brring
  • exaggerated laughing - ho ho hee he ha ha
  • exaggerated crying - boo hoo
  • something's wrong or broken - uh oh, oh no
  • big smiles - eee
  • fish face, hooting like an owl ooo
  • blowing kisses

When should I seek help?

It is important to remember that:

  • every child develops at a different rate
  • there is a wide range of what is considered normal for when a child can use different speech sounds

Look at how your child's speech compares to typical development using the suggestions made in first three sections of this page:

  • the speech sound development chart
  • the descriptions of individual sound errors and patterns of sound changes
  • the guide to the approximate level of intelligibility (how much is understood) expected at different ages

If you are concerned about your child's speech development, you should discuss your concerns with the following:

  • your child's teacher (if attending an early childhood centre or school)
  • your doctor, who should be able to advise you whether your child's speech development is appropriate for their age, or whether there is a speech development issue or another developmental concern
  • your Well Child nurse

Issues  with speech and language development can sometimes be a sign of hearing difficulties. Glue ear can be one of the causes of hearing difficulties. See the following fact sheets on this website:

If your child is still having significant difficulties being understood by familiar adults:

  • by their third birthday, or
  • earlier if you are concerned,

you should request a referral for a speech assessment by a speech-language therapist.

A speech-language therapist will:

  • firstly talk with you about your concerns, your child's developmental history, any health issues, any significant events including birth history
  • assess your child's communication development, in particular the areas that you are concerned about
  • if required, develop a programme with you which will include strategies that you can use daily with your child, as much as possible within daily routines
  • monitor and review progress and refer to other services (such as audiology), if required

Acknowledgements

Starship Foundation and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand acknowledge the co-operation of the Ministry of Education.  This fact sheet produced in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, and adapted from:

Ministry of Education  2000. Much more than words: Monitoring and encouraging communication development in early childhood

This page last reviewed 15 April 2013
© Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation 2005 – 2014
Printed on 24 November 2014. Content is regularly updated so please refer to www.kidshealth.org.nz for the most up-to-date version
Content endorsed by the Paediatric Society of New Zealand