Speech sound development: what to expect and when

Posted by / Wednesday 17 May 2017 / Speech and Communication
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When your little one starts to talk, you may notice that they aren’t always easy to understand. They know exactly what they are saying, but you…well, sometimes an educated guess is needed!

This is because when children talk, especially younger children, they don’t necessarily say words in the same way an adult does. Just as we have milestones for how many words a child should know, when they should be making sentences etc, we also have information about when children are able to use certain sounds. After all, some sounds are trickier than others and it can take a bit of time before they’re really mastered.

As they get slightly older it doesn’t usually take long for us to tune in to our children and the way they speak. It might be however that people that don’t know them can still find it tricky to understand them right up until they’re around three and a half years old.

As a general guide, we expect children to develop their speech sounds in the following ways:

  • 18‐24 months – children use a limited number of sounds in their words – often these are p, b, t, d, m and w. Children will also often miss the ends off words at this stage. They can usually be understood about half of the time.
  • 2‐3 years – children use a wider range of speech sounds. However, many children will shorten longer words, such as saying ‘nana’ instead of ‘banana’. They may also have difficulty where lots of sounds happen together in a word, e.g. they may say ‘pider’ instead of 'spider.'   They often have problems saying more difficult sounds like ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘th’ and ‘r.’ However, people that know them can mostly understand them.
  • 3‐4 years – Children have difficulties with a small number of sounds – for example ‘r’, ‘w’, ‘l’, ‘f’, ‘th’, ‘sh’, ‘ch’ and ‘z’.  
  • 4‐5 years – children can use most sounds effectively. However, they may have some difficulties with more difficult words such as 'scribble' or 'elephant'.
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You can find out more by going to the Talking Point website. You can also see how your child is doing using the Progress Checker. This free factsheet from I CAN, children’s communication charity, has lots more information and ideas about how to support children as they develop their speech.

Sometimes children can struggle to master the sounds we expect from them at the right age i.e. this part of their development is a little delayed. This means they can sound like a child younger than them, or their speech can be unclear.

Often children will catch up with a little support or practise, but sometimes their difficulties can be longer lasting.

If you’re worried about a child’s speaking, why not get in touch with the I CAN Help enquiry service. Their speech and language therapists are happy to help with any questions or queries and can give you information and advice on how to help a child.

Learning to make different speech sounds takes time and practise for children. Understanding how this development happens will help you to help them.

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