Normal Speech or a Speech Difficulty?
Updated: Jul 12
A question I get asked a lot by parents of my children’s friends is ‘can you listen to my child is this speech normal?’ The first and most important piece of advice is that if you are worried – seek help! Please make an appointment to see a speech therapist for a proper assessment. This blog is a guide to help but not a substitute for a professional screening of your child’s speech sounds.
I am going to try to explain in simple terms how children learn to say speech sounds and combine them to make speech. They don’t learn all the sounds at once. Speech sounds follow a specific route of development in which certain sounds are mastered before others, with some differences between individual children.
You might be worried about your child’s progress but remember not to compare their speech to yours, their siblings or their peers as we all develop slightly differently. Although it may seem imperfect, it takes a long time for children to develop clear, adult-like speech. Your speech therapist can help you evaluate whether your child is on the right track or has a speech difficulty.
Speech Sound Development Charts
Variation Within Sounds
The following chart tells you the age ranges for development of each speech sound. The horizontal bars tell you the appropriate timeline for a child to learn a particular sound.
Some sounds have more than one pronunciation and may appear at different times in development.
/th/ Sounds: the unvoiced (softer) /th/ sound in 'thumb' tends to be a little easier to say and usually appears earlier than the voiced (louder) /th/ in 'this'
/r/ Sounds: /r/ is easier to say when it is beside a vowel, like /r/ word 'ripe' or word 'star'. This type of /r/ is usually learned between the ages of 3-5.
When /r/ is beside a consonant, like the /r/ blends 'spread', it can be more difficult to say. Children usually learn /r/ blends between the ages of 3 - 8 or even up to 9 years old.
/s/ Sounds: like /r/, /s/ next to a vowel is easier than /s/ blends. So the word 'sit' will likely be easier to say than the word 'smell'.
The Speech Hierarchy
How someone pronounces a sound or says a word is a habit. Practice in steps is recommended to break that habit and learn a new way to pronounce a sound. The steps increase gradually in levels of difficulty. Think of the following diagram as a slide your child needs to go down to achieve smooth speech. The easiest to master is the top of the pyramid and it gets gradually more difficult as they slide down.
It is often easiest to learn a sound by itself before combining it in a word with other sounds. This hierarchy isn’t always followed exactly but is a general guide for order of practice and how your Speech and Language Therapist will likely give you exercises to work on sounds should this be needed.
From isolation until sentence-level practice, your child will be working on the technical skills of pronouncing a sound correctly using their voice, mouth, tongue and teeth.
When it comes to the last level of ‘generalisation’ or using it in everyday conversation, the skill shifts from technical ability to attention or memory. Your child has to break a habit that they have formed and now remember to use their ‘new’ sound in all contexts and that’s where school and family take the supporting lead.
There is a lot more to identifying a speech difficulty and a lot of variation in what could be causing any difficulties than can be shown in this blog or on these charts; it should be used as a guide but not a tool for diagnosis of a speech delay. If you would like an assessment or speech therapy, or have any questions for a Speech and Language Therapist, please do reach out to us here!
Keep safe and thanks for reading!