My child is saying lots of words and phrases
but their talking can be difficult to understand (unclear speech)
Children learn sounds from listening and interacting to others in their environment. Babies tune into voices before they are born and start to experiment with making sounds from birth, for example cooing and gooing, gurgles and squeaks. This sound play becomes babble which in turn becomes longer strings of sounds and then first words. It is normal for children to continue to use babbling as their first words develop.
Which speech sounds should my child be able to say?
Learning to say sounds correctly and using them in words takes practice. Some children are able to say words quite clearly when they begin to talk whereas other children need to hear and say words lots of times before those words become clear.
There is a wide variability in the way that speech sounds develop. Sounds such as ‘p’, ‘b’, ‘m’ sounds usually develop earlier in children’s talking. Sounds such as ‘ch’, ‘j’, ‘th’ and ‘r’ sounds are later to develop; some of these speech sounds are still normally developing up to the age of 8 years old.
The link below is a guide for parents, giving a general overview of the order in which children generally acquire sounds. (this is a guideline for children who have English as their first language)
What types of errors can children make?
For some children learning to say sounds and then putting them into words is difficult. They may change some sounds for different ones or miss sounds off at the end or the starts of words. Some children can imitate a sound on its own but cannot use those sounds in words. For most children, the sounds continue to develop over time.
Often children may not know that they are saying words incorrectly and may get frustrated when other people can’t understand them.
How can I help?
There are lots of ways that you can help your child to communicate effectively and to reduce their frustration when trying to get their message across.
Get down to their level, look at them when they speak and listen.
If your child says a word incorrectly, say the correct word back so that they have a clear model. For example, if your child says “boar” instead of four, repeat back “yes, four”. Don’t correct your child by telling them that their word is wrong as this can confuse them; we want to praise their word knowledge even when sounds are developing.
If your child has used a long sentence and you are only able to understand 1 or 2 words, repeat these back and wait. This gives your child the chance to try and explain in a different way and shows that you are listening.
Do not ask your child to repeat words after you. This can result in children avoiding talking or becoming less confident to try new words.
Try offering two choices for things you know your child likes, that way they can repeat back just one or two words so that you can understand.
Don’t pretend to understand if you can’t. Tell your child that you can’t understand them. Praise them for helping you if they keep trying. If your child is very conscious of their speech it can help to blame yourself, e.g. “my ears aren’t working well today”.
Ask your child to show you by taking you to what they want or to point.
Use gestures or mime when talking to your child and encourage them to do the same. This can give you extra clues when you need to work out what your child is saying.
Once a child starts to make sounds, regular dummy use can impact on babbling and experimentation with sounds.
If your child is over a year old keep dummy use for bed and nap time and remind your child to take it out when they are trying to talk or make sounds.
If your child is under 12 months make sure they have plenty of time without a dummy so that they can experiment and play with sounds in order to develop babble.
As children are usually unaware they are changing some speech sounds in their talking, it can be helpful to gently increase their awareness of sounds in words and the structures of words before focusing on specific sounds.
You can support your child’s awareness of the structures of words and the sounds in words by trying Sound Bombardment activities and Syllable Clapping activities. These hand-outs also include links to videos to demonstrate the activities.
As parents, you know your child the best! You know what activities they like, what they like to play with and what makes them happy.
By incorporating simple strategies into your everyday home activities you can support your child’s speech sound development.