I can’t understand him. Is there something wrong with him? Well, there might be! But it is important to remember no child is born speaking clearly. Even the ones who make very good progress with speech will take a while to master the sounds that are most difficult to say, such as /r/, /th/, more than one consonant in a cluster like sp, fl, sk, long words, and so on. The general rule is that children can say the easier sounds first. Some of the vowel sounds and the easier consonants like /m/, /b/ and /d/. They may imitate you but simplify words. You can help their learning by confirming you understood by using the word yourself. E.g.
Child: bu’ tumi’
Adult: good! the bus is coming – let’s get ready
If a child says darbar for car park, it may sound very cute but it isn’t helpful if the whole family starts using the wrong pronunciation. On the other hand, if you keep correcting the child it may make no difference and he will just get annoyed. Keep talking normally, confirming you understand him by commenting back using normal speech, and see if things change in a few months.
Sometimes families forget to go back to the start for the youngest child so he never hears the highly repetitive and simplified speech used to small children. The little one may pick up a fantastic vocabulary and seem to understand – but it’s hard to sort out all the sounds at this speed. Try to make allowances in conversation, and read age-appropriate books to him every day.
Of course, some children actually have a real problem with learning to speak. There may be a problem like tongue-tie but this is not often so severe as to prevent reasonable speech development. Seek advice if the child cannot poke the tongue tip out.
Children with Down’s Syndrome often appear to have quite large tongues and this, together with other problems, can affect speech clarity. Or the mouth may seem disproportionately small. Either way, the effect is the same. It is hard to make the quick neat movements essential for clear speech.
Some children have a specific learning difficulty affecting speech – these tend to have major problems not just a couple of speech sounds they can’t do.
A very common problem which affects many preschoolers is a series of ear infections and chronic nasal congestion and/or problems with tonsils and adenoids. ‘Glue ear’ may persist for some weeks after an infection and this affects hearing temporarily. The children may snore really loudly, appear open-mouthed, eat noisily, have problems with thick nasal catarrh etc. Children with this health history often make slow progress with sorting out speech sounds. A GP can often see whether or not the child has healthy ears and, if there is a query on hearing, the GP can arrange age-appropriate tests to check whether the child’s ears are functioning well and that the hearing levels are normal.
Problems often do not come alone! A minor difficulty making sounds compounded by variable hearing will add up to something much more troublesome. The child with Down’s Syndrome who has a large tongue, ear problems and learning difficulties is having to cope with lots of disadvantages when it comes to speaking.
If you are concerned that your child will go to preschool or enter school with speech that strangers cannot understand, it is better to seek advice from a Speech & Language Therapist sooner rather than later. Things may turn around but some specialist advice will help with reassurance or ideas of what to do if intervention is advisable.
This group of resources focus on some of the ways to help with articulation. Children who do not speak clearly may of course have a hearing impairment. But often testing suggests their hearing is okay. Working on auditory discrimination to make them choose between sounds they are confusing can be helpful and is easier than demanding they speak better! It is often very hard to teach a child a new sound, and even harder to get them to use the sound in their conversation. However some of the resources suggest ways of trying to help. If you or the child gets frustrated, it is better to seek help than end up with a child who refuses to talk at all!
1. Auditory discrimination tasks:
- for children who muddle p and f sounds in their speech artic 1
- for children who muddle sh and ch sounds in their speech artic 2
- for children who muddle t and f sounds in their speech artic 3
- for children who muddle t and k sounds when they speak artic 4
- for children who are not using different sounds for s and sh in their speech artic 5
- for children who are not pronouncing r and r-clusters clearly artic 6
- for children who find l-clusters difficult to detect/say artic 7
- for children who omit the s from s-clusters in their speech artic 8
- for children who find it hard to hear and say consonant clusters artic 10
- for children who don’t discriminate between the vowel sounds er and or, o and oo artic 12
- for children who don’t discriminate between the short vowel sounds o and u artic 13
- for children who omit word-final consonants artic 14
2. Working on new speech sounds:
- practise word-final-s artic 9
- chain games for ch and j artic 15
- practise word-final sh,ch,j artic 16
- practise word-final k and t artic 17
3. Targeting nice speech at an early stage if development is delayed: story for articulation practice with CVCV words artic 11