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Speech Clarity: What’s Normal and When to Seek Help

It’s perfectly normal for children to make some mistakes as they learn to pronounce new sounds, and every sound has a different age-range at which we would expect kids to get the hang of it. While all children learn at their own pace, it is still helpful to monitor their progress as they reach speech-related milestones. By ensuring kids are fairly intelligible at the right age, we prepare them to get the most out of early schooling and have confidence socialising.

In this article, we will look at the general speech clarity milestones that it’s ideal for children to reach at particular ages, as well as the steps to take when kids need extra support. But before we get underway, it will help to briefly review the different kinds of speech disorders.

Types of Speech Disorders

Problems with children’s speech clarity can arise for a variety of reasons, whether it’s simply part of the learning process or is caused by a more serious issue such as hearing loss. Whatever the underlying reason may be, we can classify speech issues either as delays or disorders.

A speech delay is when mistakes continue past an appropriate age, and is not necessarily a cause for concern. However, if these mistakes do not correct themselves by six years of age, therapy is required. Young children often make speech errors such as the replacement of “r” sounds with “w”, or “th” for “f”. It is only worth investigating when these errors show no sign of improvement as the child matures or there is frustration from the child because they cannot be understood.

A speech disorder is more of a concern, as it means a child either has physical difficulty forming a sound(s), or is substituting or deleting sound(s) in a way that differs from the normal developmental process. Speech disorders are unlikely to correct themselves with time. There may be inconsistencies in what the child is doing with their speech sound changes. A child’s speech can be difficult to understand and cause much frustration.

When to be Concerned

Caregivers or people familiar to the child are in the best position to notice the early signs of speech disorders. That is to say, it’s worth considering extra support if a child is very difficult to understand by caregivers, if it looks like he or she is struggling to make sounds, or is aware that other people cannot understand his or her words. Below is a range of simplified speech clarity milestones, which although only approximate, will serve as a starting point to assess your child’s progress:

  • By 18 months, 25% of speech should be intelligible to familiar people.

  • By 24 months (two years), 50 to 75% of speech should be intelligible to familiar people.

  • By 36 months (three years), 75 to 100% of speech should be intelligible to familiar people.

  • By four years of age, a child should usually be understood, including by people who are unfamiliar to them.

Remember that speech sound production unpins expressive language development, which in turn is the foundation for literacy. If you have any concerns about how your child is making speech sounds, get in contact with a Speech Therapist who can provide you with advice and guidance right for your situation.

How You Can Help Improve Speech Clarity

If you are concerned about your child’s speech clarity, you may wish to spend some time helping him or her out. As a caregiver, you are the best person to encourage your child to learn new sounds! Below are some ideas to get started with.

For babies:

  • Encourage your baby to make vowel-like and consonant-vowel sounds such as “ma,” “da,” and “ba.”

  • Reinforce attempts by maintaining eye contact, responding with speech, and imitating vocalisations using different patterns and emphasis. For example, raise the pitch of your voice to indicate a question.

  • Imitate your baby’s laughter and facial expressions.

  • Teach your baby to imitate your actions, including clapping your hands, throwing kisses, and playing finger games such as pat-a-cake, peek-a-boo, and the itsy-bitsy-spider.

For toddlers:

  • Use speech that is clear and simple, so your child can copy.

  • Repeat what your child says to indicate that you understand. Build and expand on what was said; “Want juice? I have juice. I have apple juice. Let’s drink apple juice.”

  • Acknowledge, encourage, and praise all attempts to speak. Show that you understand the word or phrase by fulfilling the request, if appropriate.

  • Give specific praise for clear speech rather than errors. For example, “That was great clear talking. I like it when you speak slowly so I can understand you.”

  • Try to respond immediately, or a soon as you can if you are talking to someone else. Avoid letting the child say the same thing over and over again, only to be ignored – if they are ignored too many times, kids may give up trying.

  • When you can’t understand your child, try to take some of the responsibility by saying things like: “Oops, sorry – my ears aren’t working very well today, can you please say that again”, or “I’m not hearing very well today, you’ll have to help me”. Ask only for two repetitions at the most for any given speech attempt.

  • Before teaching new words, make sure your child can say the individual sounds by themselves. If not, words containing the sound will be too difficult to say.

Getting Professional Support

If a child is still hard to understand despite the best efforts of caregivers, the right course of action is to contact a Speech-Language Therapist (SLT). SLTs specialise in the assessment and treatment of speech clarity issues, and will provide advice relevant to your child and situation. The SLT will ask you about your individual circumstances, assess your child’s speech and – based on the information obtained – will give you reassurance and guidance specific to your situation and your child. You and the Therapist can then either monitor for signs of typical development or decide to commence speech-language therapy sessions if that is appropriate.

In summary and as your Speech-Language Therapist will tell you, the key to creating crystal-clear kids lies primarily with caregivers. By spending time chatting, reading and playing with your child, his or her speech clarity will be likely to improve. And remember, if you as the parent are still concerned in spite of your best efforts; don’t hesitate to consider speech therapy.

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