Understanding Children’s Speech Production

byRuthie Dearson, M.A., CCC-SLP

Child: “Look at that tat mommy!”

Mom: “Tat?”

Child: “No, tat!”

Mom: “Cat?”

Child: “Yeah, tat!”

Mom: “Yes, what a nice cat!”

Speech development is a complex process involving a child’s mental representation of a language’s sound system (phonological development), production of individual speech sounds (phonemes), and the ability to sequence movement of the articulators (tongue, lips, teeth, jaw, palate) for speech production. Children acquire speech sounds at different ages, and although many children master all of the sounds of English by the time they are four years old, some children take longer and don’t master all of the sounds, particularly /r/, until they are eight years old.

Some children who make developmental sound errors don’t actually hear their own mistakes. They don’t have a hearing impairment and they can hear the mistakes when others make them (as in the opening dialogue above), but their own speech production doesn’t match the correct form. Did you ever think about speech being a motoric act? Try reading this sentence by moving your mouth but don’t make any sound. Notice how many movements you made with your lips, tongue, and jaw.

There are several factors to explore when a child’s speech is difficult to understand such as the child’s age, hearing ability, frequency of ear infections (some children with articulation disorders have had a history of frequent ear infections which affected their ability to hear speech sounds), oral-motor skills, what sounds they can and cannot produce, and sound error patterns, to name a few. What is important to know is that children who have difficulty being understood can become intelligible. Some children outgrow their sound errors without any intervention, and others require significant work with a speech therapist to become intelligible. When should a parent seek out intervention? If you have concerns or questions about your child’s ability to be understood, it is always appropriate to seek advice; however, that doesn’t always mean that your child requires intervention. One needs to think about obstacles to development. Is the child difficult to understand in all circumstances? Is the child having difficulty being understood by teachers and peers? These would be reasons to seek out support for the child as a child who is always misunderstood or not understood at all misses out on the development of back and forth conversations, interactions, and play schemes that are crucial to a child’s social, emotional, language, and cognitive development. On the other hand, some children make minor speech errors that do not affect their intelligibility at all. The sound error may be a mild lisp, or difficulty with one specific sound such as /r/ or /th/, although there’s nothing wrong with seeking help for these errors, they do not have the same impact on a child’s development if what they say is always understood by others even with the sound error present and persistent.

So what’s the bottom line? Speech production is a complex, developmental process that occurs over the first 4-8 years of a child’s life. Difficulties with speech affect a small percentage of the population for a variety of reasons, some understood, some unclear. Try to put speech production in the broader context of child development when wondering if speech therapy is necessary. If the child’s articulation errors have an impact on the his/her intelligibility, recognize the impact this has on the child’s independence and functioning outside of the home (sometimes only mom and dad understand the child, which is appropriate when the child is two, but not when he’s three or four and off to preschool or play dates or grandma’s house for an overnight). On the other hand, if your four-year-old has difficulty with the /r/ sound and is otherwise completely intelligible, you may not need to invest in regular therapy if it’s possible he will acquire that sound in another year or two on his own.

Just as each child is different, each child with speech difficulties is different. Seeking help from a professional and getting a good explanation and description of your child’s speech errors is an important part of the process.