Speech sounds

If you listen carefully to a young child talking, you will notice that their speech is different to adult speech. This is because children develop speech sounds gradually over time. Sounds such as /m/ and /b/ usually develop earlier, whereas sounds such as /ch/and /r/ develop later. Not all children develop the same speech sounds at the same age but they usually develop in a particular order.

Some children may not be able to use a specific sound or sounds in their speech; others struggle to co-ordinate the movements of their lips and tongue to accurately sequence sounds to make words.


 Children with speech sound difficulties have patterns of errors in their speech and it may be difficult to understand what they are saying. They might

  • add or remove a sound in a word
  • use a different sound in place of a sound they cannot say
  • struggle to coordinate the movements we make with our tongue and lips when making sounds.

It is completely normal for young children to replace trickier sounds with ones they find easier to say. However,  some children continue to show these error patterns as they get older, this is known as delayed speech development. If a child has error patterns that are not typically seen in younger children we refer to this as a speech sound disorder.

Speech and language therapy aims

Speech and language therapy aims to:

  • identify whether your child’s speech errors are typical for their age or not
  • identify which sounds to work on first
  • decide alongside parent/carers whether the child needs or would benefit from therapy
  • provide appropriate support and/or give advice

If you are concerned that your child’s speech sounds are not following the typical pattern, are developing much more slowly than expected or if people frequently struggle to understand what they are saying, it may be helpful discuss this with the Healthy Families Team or your child’s nursery or school. They will be able to help you to decide whether to make a referral to the Children’s Speech and Language Therapy Service.

Speech sound disorder

Speech sound disorder (SSD) is a term used to describe a range of difficulties that some children experience pronouncing sounds in words. Other terms used to describe speech sound disorders include speech delay, speech impairment, developmental verbal dyspraxia and phonological delay or disorder.

Children with speech sound disorders often show patterns of errors in their use of consonants and/or vowels in words. They may miss or replace specific sounds or groups of sounds and this can make it difficult to understand what they are saying.

For most children with speech sound disorders there is no known cause. Sometimes speech sound disorders can be associated with another condition such as cleft palate, hearing impairment or global developmental delay. For some children speech sounds are their only area of difficulty, but some also experience difficulties with language development (using and understanding words in sentences).

What you can do to help your child

Phase out use of bottles and dummies as soon as possible. Children need to experiment with moving their tongue and lips in order to learn to make and use new speech sounds.

When speaking to a child with a speech sound disorder:

  • Focus on what the child is saying rather than how they are saying it
  • If you haven’t understood, ask if they can show you / act it out / give a clue
  • If you’ve understood part of it, repeat that bit back to check if you are right and ask for clarification on the parts you didn’t understand
  • Don’t ask them to repeat a word unless you genuinely don’t understand. Repeating doesn’t help – they are probably already giving you their best attempt
  • Instead of asking them to repeat, try to use the word yourself so they have a really clear model of how the word sounds when a grown up says it

Help your child to learn about speech sounds by:

  • Modelling words for them, drawing their attention to the sounds in the word and your mouth movement e.g. I put my lips together when I say ball
  • Go for a walk together and try to spot as many things as you can beginning with a specific speech sound e.g. how many things beginning with the ‘s’ sound can you find in the garden, round the house or on your walk to nursery

For children who attend school or pre-school/nursery settings, it can be helpful to set up a home-school diary so that parents can include information about things that the child is likely to talk about (for example, what has happened over the weekend / names of important people /significant events) so that staff can have some clues about what the child may be saying. Staff can also give updates about what the child has done in their day so parents can understand more easily when the child gets home. This can help to give a context and potentially reduce frustration.



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