The development of speech sounds starts very early, even  before birth.  Babies in the womb learn to tune into voices and can even recognise their mother’s voice from birth.  They will be listening to the speech sounds of their native language from birth and when they begin babbling, they practice using sounds that they hear around them. After babbling, they can begin to copy some first words and then gradually increase that as their understanding of language increases.

We speak to lots of parents about the speech sound development of their child.  Often parents are concerned about the clarity of their child’s speech.  Many parents will find their child’s early attempts at copying words to be unclear.  Much of this is expected, but there are specific error patterns which develop and let us know that that the child is learning the speech sound rules of their language.  For English, there are a set of what are called phonological processes (error patterns) which we expect to emerge and then disappear along a typical developmental progression. An example of one of these processes is called “fronting” when a child produces sounds at the front of the mouth instead of at the back i.e “tat” for cat.  Another one is “stopping” which means the child is stopping a sound when it should continue i.e. “beet” for feet.  These are both common processes and usually disappears between age 3 and 4.  There are many other phonological processes which emerge throughout the early years, but most children’s speech should be generally intelligible around the age of 5 even with some errors still present until age 7.  However, this does not mean, that there is nothing that can be done to support development along the way.  We have included some helpful ages and stages as follows:

  • Age 1.5- 2 years expected sounds include: all vowels and consonants- p, b, m, t, d, w, h with error patterns present including final consonant deletion (not saying consonant sounds at the ends of words).
  • Age 2-3 years expected sounds include: k, g, ng, y with some error patterns present i.e. stopping of s, z (i.e.”dun” for sun)
  • Age 3-4 years expected sounds include: f, s, z, with some difficulty with sounds like sh, ch, j and error patterns like deleting the weak syllable (i.e. “nana” for banana) and cluster reduction (i.e. “bider” spider)
  • Age 4-5 years expected sounds include: v, sh, ch and maybe j and th and error patterns including gliding (i.e. “wight” for light)
  • Age 5-6 years expected sounds include: j, th (both the quiet and loud ones as in “thin” and “them”
  • Age 6-7 years expected sounds include: r, l and the consonant blends i.e. sp, dr etc.

There is more information on the developmental order that speech sounds are expected here.  You can also check out the phonological processes in more detail here.

When children move along the normal error pattern progression in the expected time frame, there usually is  no cause for concern, but if error patterns do not disappear when they should, the child’s speech sound development is considered to be delayed.  There are however some errors which are considered atypical such as errors on production of vowel sounds as well as other uncommon errors which indicate that the speech sound system development is not delayed but actually disordered. Both children with delayed speech sound development and disordered speech sound development will benefit from speech and language therapy whether that be within a group, supported by a home programme or individual therapy.  A speech and language therapist will be able to do a thorough assessment of your child and determine the best course of action and certainly be able to demonstrate useful techniques to help support speech development as a part of daily life.  Parental support which is little and often is key for generalising improvement of any skills a child may be practicing within therapy session.

What you can do to help:

  1. Model sounds back correctly without telling your child they have said it wrong.  Saying, “Yes its a “bussssss” emphasising the sound they need to fix without the pressure of asking them to say it again.  They will definitely have a go if they feel confident to do so. Confidence is key.  If a child feels confident, they will likely take more of a risk and that gives you a chance to model it back again even if they still get it wrong.
  2. Sing songs all the time and nursery rhymes to get them thinking about sounds and lots of practice within a fun activity.
  3. Playing with sounds the they might need to try to work on by playing I Spy games or rhyming games as well can be a good way to boost their awareness of sounds as they develop.

If you have any concerns about your child’s speech and language please get in touch with your local speech therapy service or an independent therapy service.  Early intervention is key to ensuring that your child does not become frustrated and helps to prepare them for reading later on.  Having fun with speech is what speech therapy is all about too!