Speech delay is when a child is behind in their development of clear speech. This is different to language delay. For example, a child with a speech delay may have an age appropriate vocabulary but be difficult to understand, whereas a child with a language delay might say a few words clearly but at their age should be speaking in sentences. It is possible to have one without the other or both together.
Some speech delays may be due to a physical problem such as a cleft palate or a hearing impairment, but most children have no specific reason for their speech delay.
It is common for young children to shorten words eg. ‘nana’ instead of banana, leave off a sound eg. ‘poon’ instead of spoon, and substitute sounds in words eg. ‘w’ instead of ‘r’ in rabbit, ‘f’ instead of ‘th’ in thing, ‘f’ instead of ‘tr’ in truck (this can be a little embarrassing, especially if your kid loves trucks). But as a child gets older, their speech should become clearer and these ‘mistakes’ should disappear.
If a child continues to have problems pronouncing sounds they are considered to have a speech disorder and should be seen by a speech pathologist. The most commonly mispronounced sounds are ‘s’, ‘l’, ‘r’ and boys are more likely than girls to have difficulty pronouncing sounds.
Children master some sounds earlier than others. This is a general guide for what most children are able to do by a certain age.
By 2 years
Can say sounds: ‘t’ (tea), ‘d’ (dog), ‘n’ (nose), ‘m’ (mummy), ‘b’ (ball)
Will still have difficulty using sounds correctly in words
An unfamiliar person should be able to understand 50% of what your child is saying
By 3 years
Additional sounds: ‘b’ (ball), ‘p’ (pig), ‘m’ (mummy), ‘h’ (horse), ‘k’/’c’ (cup), ‘g’ (girl), ‘ng’ (sing), ‘w’ (water), ‘y’ (yellow)
An unfamiliar person should be able to understand 75% of what your child is saying
By 4 years
Additional sounds: 'f’ (fish), ‘l’ (lion), ‘sh’ (sheep), ‘ch’ (chair)
An unfamiliar person should be able to understand 100% of what your child is saying
By 5 years
Additional sounds: ‘j’ (jam), ‘s’ (sun), ‘z’ (zoo), ‘r’ (rabbit)
By 6-7 years
Additional sounds: ‘v’ (van), ‘th’ (this), ‘th’ (thing), ‘zh’ (treasure)
Usually by the age of 7 a child will be using all sounds correctly
Tips to help your child
Respond to any of your child’s attempts at communication
Talk and read to your child to help develop their speech, language and listening skills
Sing nursery rhymes
When you're reading to your child point out the letters and sounds in words that are difficult
Try not to overcorrect (nag) or be negative eg. ‘you’re saying it wrong’
Be positive and emphasis the sound that is incorrect eg. ‘ssssing’
Don’t let friends or relatives (especially older siblings) make fun of your child
Let your child see your mouth movements as you are saying the sounds/words
Be a role model - speak clearly and use correct speech sounds
Seek professional help if your child:
is >6 months behind in approx. age range for using speech sounds
gets frustrated about speaking eg. is not easily understood, stutters, has trouble finding the right words
has a hearing loss
NOTE: This is only a guide. The ages at which children master speech sounds varies. If you have any concerns about your child’s speech, consider an assessment with a speech pathologist. If you are concerned about a hearing problem or you think your child has a delay in other areas of development as well as speech, see your doctor.
Related Children's Book
ANY picture book is great for developing speech. Keep it simple, short, and with bright pictures to entice your child. If it rhymes, that's even better!
Big bug little bug by Paul Strickland
This book is a great example of keeping it simple while still engaging children. All 3 of my kids loved the colourful bugs in this book with their rhyming opposites. Not to forget the spectacular pop-up at the end.