As young children learn to speak, it is normal for them to have some difficulty saying words correctly. That is part of the learning process. Speech skills develop over time. Children master certain sounds at each age. By age 8, most children have learned how to correctly say all speech sounds in words.
Children with speech sound disorders have difficulty producing sounds, words or phrases clearly and fluently. This can be due to immature development, neurological impairment or a structural difference, such as cleft lip/palate.
Speech sound disorders include:
- Articulation disorders: An articulation disorder is the inability to say certain speech sounds correctly beyond the age when the sound is typically learned. Speech sounds may be dropped, added, distorted or substituted. Keep in mind that some sound changes may be part of an accent or dialect, and may not be true speech errors.
- Phonological process disorders: A phonological process disorder occurs when a child makes predictable and typical patterns of speech sound errors. The mistakes may be common in young children learning speech skills, but when they continue past a certain age, it may be a disorder.
- Disorders that involve a combination of both articulation and phonological process disorders.
If you suspect your child has a speech sound disorder, talk to your child’s healthcare provider as soon as possible. Research has shown that children who begin speech therapy early have the best outcomes.
Signs of an articulation disorder can include:
- Leaving off sounds from words, such as saying “coo” instead of “school”
- Adding sounds to words, such as saying “puhlay” instead of “play”
- Distorting sounds in words, such as saying “thith” instead of “this”
- Substituting sounds in words, such as saying “wadio” instead of “radio”
Signs of a phonological process disorder can include:
- Saying only one syllable in a word, such as saying “bay” instead of “baby”
- Simplifying a word by repeating two syllables, such as saying “baba” instead of “bottle”
- Leaving out a consonant sound, such as saying “at” or “ba” instead of “bat” or saying “tar” instead of “star”
- Changing certain consonant sounds, such as “tat” instead of “cat”
Often, there is no known cause for a speech sound disorder. However, some children do have a family history of speech delay or immature development. Others may have a neurological impairment or a structural difference, such as cleft lip/palate, that may cause the disorder.
Your child’s doctor will first check your child’s hearing to ensure she is hearing normally. If your child does not have hearing loss, your child’s doctor will likely refer your child to a speech-language pathologist (SLP). An SLP is a speech expert who will evaluate and treat your child with speech, language or communication problems.
By watching and listening to your child speak, the SLP can determine whether your child’s speech issues are part of her normal growth and development or are consistent with a speech sound disorder. The SLP will evaluate your child's speech and language skills, and assess your child’s mouth structures and movements that may be affecting her ability to speak.
After your child has been diagnosed with a speech sound disorder, your child’s speech-language pathologist will recommend a therapy plan to improve her speech skills.
SLPs work with children to help them:
- Recognize and correct the sounds they cannot say
- Learn how to correctly produce speech sounds
- Practice saying certain sounds, words and sentences to speak more clearly
- Practice at home with activities and strategies learned in therapy
If your child has a structural difference in the mouth, the SLP can refer your child to the appropriate medical professional.
Early recognition and diagnosis of speech sound disorders can help children overcome speech problems. They can learn how to communicate clearly.