Speech Development in Children: Information From an SLP Mom


The month of May has rolled around yet again; it’s Better Speech and Hearing Month. Part of my role as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) is to promote awareness of speech development delays and disorders treated by our field.

This May, I am going to share my thoughts on childhood speech development.

I am commonly asked by my fellow parents about their child(ren)’s speech development. Mostly, they want to know whether I think their child has articulation issues. That is, if their child pronounces speech sounds correctly for their age. This may seem like an easy question to answer. However, it is much more loaded than it may initially appear.

mom throwing girl up in the air

When asked about articulation, SLPs think about not only how sounds are produced, but if a child presents with patterns of errors in connected speech, as well as how understandable a child is overall to familiar and unfamiliar listeners. We also think about if we hear anything that could indicate a structural issue (such as a missed hidden cleft palate or a tongue tie) or notice any other indicators that something may be an issue motorically (at the neurological level or due to severe muscle weakness).

For now, I will talk about the more common speech production errors we see and when parents may want to be concerned about them.

1. Articulation Errors

An articulation error occurs when a child simply has difficulties producing a sound. When looking at the research, the ages at which each sound in the English language develops vary a little bit. However, it is generally accepted that the first sounds babies generally produce are /b, p, m, and d/, because they are the easiest. These are followed by /t, k, g, f and v/. With other sounds like voiced ‘th’ (i.e. this) and voiceless ‘th’ (i.e. ‘thin’), ‘ch’ (i.e. ‘chin’), ‘j’ (i.e. ‘jump’), ‘zh’ (i.e. ‘measure’) and /r/ developing later on. Many sources agree that 90% of children don’t completely master /r/ in conversation until the age of 8 years. The following website contains a chart that shows these development patterns on page 2: http://www.maumee.k12.oh.us/document_center/Phonological%20Processes.pdf

2. Phonological Errors

This same document linked to above contains information regarding another common speech sound production problem that we categorize separately from the typical articulation error. We refer to these particular patterns of sound substitutions as phonological processes. For example, a young child may demonstrate patterns where they delete final consonants (i.e. ‘bo’ for ‘boat’), reduce consonant clusters (i.e. ‘pum’ for ‘plum’) or replace sounds produced in the back of the mouth with sounds that are produced more forward in the mouth (i.e. ‘doat’ for ‘goat’). It is also important to notice on the chart on page 1 of the document that there are also patterns that are not typical for children to use at all at any age, such as initial consonant deletion (i.e. ‘oat’ for ‘boat’).

boys excitedly playing

When should you be concerned that a child might have a delayed or disordered speech production?

  • By age 2, a child should generally be understood by an unfamiliar adult (one who does not know the child) 50% of the time. By age 3, this percentage should jump to 75% and by 4, a child should be understood 100% of the time under these circumstances. If you feel your child is blatantly not at these levels, it might be a good idea to refer for a speech and language evaluation.
  • If your 5-year-old is still using a lot of those phonological processes, or patterns of error, and this is affecting how much they are understood. By age 5, most (but not all) of the phonological processes children use should be very limited.
  • If you’re referring to the articulation chart I linked to above (on page 2) and your preschooler isn’t producing some of the earlier sounds they should have long developed by their age in conversation, this could indicate a delay or that they are using a phonological process substitution that may need addressing.
  • If your child is consistently (more often than not) using any phonological process that is noted as atypical in the chart on page 1 of the document I linked to above. For example, initial consonant deletion (i.e. ‘oat’ for ‘boat’). The consistent presence of any atypical patterns warrants an evaluation by an SLP.
  • Anytime your gut makes you think you should. This article is certainly not a replacement for an evaluation by a certified speech-language pathologist. You are the parent and know your child best. SLPs would rather you address your doubts early than put them off. If there are speech development issues, working on them earlier rather than later is easier on everyone (and makes for better therapy prognosis).

Parents should be aware that different states and different age groups have their own special education regulations.

This means the criteria for kids to qualify for speech and language services are different at the early intervention level than it is at the preschool level. In addition, school-age children have their own requirements they have to meet to receive services for speech and language or any other service at school. This also means that if your preschool or school-aged child has one or two consistent speech errors, it may not be enough to qualify them for services under an IEP and you may have to explore other options with your evaluation team if you would like your child to receive speech therapy.

girl working at a table

What can you do while waiting for the evaluation process to be complete?

  • Make sure your child has had a current hearing screening (usually this happens at the pediatrician’s office) and that you have the results of it ready for your evaluator(s). Children have problems producing speech sounds if they cannot hear them well. That is obvious. Just because your child passed their newborn hearing screening, however, does not necessarily mean they’ll pass another at two years old. Your evaluator needs to know if hearing is an issue. Speech therapy is not going to work well until any hearing issues are resolved. If there are no hearing issues, the evaluation team can assume that hearing is not the reason for any speech production errors and can feel confident in recommending therapy right away if needed.
  • Slow your own speech down (not so much that it is abnormal) when you’re talking to your child and try to use shorter sentences. This will provide your child with better speech models to try to imitate.
  • Correctly repeat the words they said incorrectly; if your child says, ‘I want the tat’ instead of, ‘I want the cat,’ you could say ‘Oh, you want the cat?’ This gives them a correct model of what they were trying to say without putting any pressure on them to produce it correctly.

Some of these suggestions and more are found within this nifty resource: https://childdevelopment.com.au/areas-of-concern/talking/articulation-pronunciation-and-talking/

Speech sound errors can be tricky to understand and navigate. Hopefully, this has been helpful to you if you’ve been wondering if your child has difficulties in this area.

Do you have concerns about your child’s speech development? If you are located in Vermont and are worried about your child’s speech development or skills in other developmental areas, you can request an evaluation by:

  • Contacting your local Vermont Family Network Children’s Integrative Services (CIS) Coordinator if your child is under the age of 3 years. You can find your local coordinator listed here: https://dcf.vermont.gov/partners/cis
  • Contacting your school district and asking for the support services department if your child is aged 3 or over.

speech development in children


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