Articulation disorders Part I

How you can help with preschool children’s speech development 

Speech skills are important for good communication. It is exciting to watch and help a child learn to speak; and there are lots of things that educators and parents can do to help. Children start to speak in single words from around their first birthday. They learn more and more words and then start to join words together usually from about 18 months. As children are learning to talk they may be a bit hard to understand sometimes and not get all the sounds in words correct – this is normal, so it’s good to know what to expect at certain ages. 

Let’s start with a quick look at what typically occurs in young children. 

Ages and stages for preschool children 

Children learn speech sounds at different ages and there are some typical milestones that you can look out for. Usually children will master basic sounds before complex patterns such as  consonant clusters (I.e., st, cl, tr) and longer multi-syllable words. 

Most children will develop speech sounds by the following ages and reach these milestones: 

3  4 years – children will usually be able to say most of the consonant sounds (e.g., m, n, h, w, p, b, t, d, k, g, ng, f, y, s, z, ch, j, sh, l). They are starting to say consonant clusters at the beginning of words, e.g. stop or at the end of word eg bentMost children will be able to say the vowels sounds correctly also eg oh, ee, ay.  

By 4  5 years children can also recognise and say rhymes and hear syllables in words. They may be able to identify individual sounds in words. This is known as phonological awareness and it is an important pre-reading skill. 

They may still be having trouble with and v, e.g. wabbit for rabbit and bery for very. Consonant blends may not always be correct (e.g., street bread, clue, jump). 

Later developing sounds in Australian English include the voiced th (as in this and mother) and the voiceless th (as in thumb and teeth), which may not be correct until 7-8 years. 

What do preschool children find difficult? 

There are some common error patterns that we see in children aged 3-5 years. ‘Fronting’ is an error where the child has their tongue forward in the month when it should be further back. The t and k gets swapped over in fronting, so ‘car’ is pronounced ‘tar’. You may have heard this in some children. Lisping is another common speech error where the tongue is too far forward in the mouth, so sounds like th such as thun for sun, etc.  

Preschool children may have difficulty saying consonant clusters like in ‘stop’ and leave out one of the sounds, e.g. ‘top’ or ‘dop’ for ‘stop’. Longer words with lots of syllables may be tricky too, e.g. hospital and ambulance. 

Why do children have speech delays or disorders? 

Sometimes the cause is clear; for example if it is due a physical reason such as hearing loss or teeth falling out (and causing a lisp), tongue tie or a cleft palate. Using dummies (pacifiers), thumb sucking and drinking from bottles with teats for extended periods can contribute to the child to having their tongue too far forward in their mouth and can lead to fronting errors, lisps and sometimes dribbling. Usually, however, there is no clear reason. The child’s speech development is delayed or has gone off track a little from the typical development for whatever reason. 

How can you help with these common errors? 

You can help by:

  • Modelling clear speech 
  • Praising the child when you hear them say the sounds correctly
  • Repeat back correctly what the child has said e.g. child says ‘There’s a tar.’ You say. ‘Yes it’s a car. A noisy car.’ Or child says ‘I want a do”. You say “Do you want a go? Ok let’s GO!” 
  • Use other cues to show the child how to make the sound: “Watch my mouth’, look in the mirror together and say the sound, use visual prompts to remind them to keep their tongue back. I will show you some of these tips in our upcoming webinar later this month. 
  • Read books that are loaded with one or two speech sounds e.g. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr Seuss for the (you guessed it) and sh sounds! 
  • Clap out words to help get all the syllables in, e.g. am-bu-lance, di-na –saur 
  • Give the child a choice if you haven’t understood – “Did you mean ball or boy?” 
  • Read to your child as often as you can. Every day is best. 
  • Play rhyming games, I Spy and tongue twisters to help children start to think about sounds and letters 

Who can you turn to if you are worried? 

Don’t wait and see. If you are concerned there are professionals to help. Early advice and help is almost always better. 

An audiologist can check your child’s hearing and this is often a good place to start. Ear infections and associated hearing loss is common in young children and can affect speech development if it persists and is left untreated. Sometimes children with middle ear infections do not show a lot of symptoms, so if your child’s speech is difficult to understand you can start with a hearing test. 

speech pathologist can assess your child’s speech and language development and help them learn the sounds they are having problems with. Contact your local community health centre or visit to find one near you. 

Interested in this topic? Read Articulation Disorders Part II here.

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