Speech is not the same thing as Language. Speech refers to the individual building blocks of language – the speech sounds that make up words, that make up sentences that make language.
Every language is made up of a specific set of speech sounds, or phonemes. Standard English has 44 phonemes. Yes, that is more phonemes than the 26 letters of our alphabet.
How do we make speech sounds?
Production of speech sounds requires accurate coordination of the body parts that we use to speak: lips, tongue, hard palate, soft palate, teeth, vocal folds (for voice), velopharyngeal port (a gateway directing the air from our lungs to go through our nose or mouth, depending on the sound) and lungs (for air).
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For example, to make the “m” sound, we need to have we need air flow from our lungs (1) to make our vocal folds (2) vibrate to make sound, our lips (3) need to be sealed and we need our velopharyngeal port (4) to be open, allowing the air to exit through our nose (5).
Speech Pathologists should always do an evaluation of the child’s oral structures to ensure that there aren’t any physical or neurological causes for speech difficulties.
Physical causes for speech impairments may include:
- cleft lip or palate – this is typically identified before or soon after birth
- submucosal cleft palate – this is a concealed cleft palate, and it is often identified later, when the child is at preschool or school.
- tight lingual frenulum – this is when the tissue under your tongue is “anchored” too tightly to the floor of the mouth restricting tongue tip movement.
Children with speech difficulties should also have their hearing tested, especially if they have a history of ear infections. Adequate hearing is essential for speech sound development.
My child doesn’t say sounds correctly. Should I contact a Speech Pathologist?
The short answer –
You should contact a Speech Pathologist if:
- You are concerned about your child’s speech
- You have noticed that your child makes more speech errors than his / her peers
- Your child’s educator / teacher has approached you because they are concerned about your child’s speech
- Your child is about to start school and unfamiliar listeners do not understand them
- Your child is being teased / bullied about their speech
- Your child is anxious about his / her speech
The long answer –
As we know, learning to speak doesn’t happen overnight! Certain sounds are more difficult for young children to learn to make than others. Researchers have studied the order in which children master speech sounds in order to understand what is normal articulation development. The findings vary slightly from researcher to researcher. This is in part because the criteria for the acquisition of a sound was different for different studies (e.g. in some studies, the acquisition of a sound was tested only in one-syllable-length words, in other studies the sound had to be produced correctly 90% of the time, etc.). The other reason for the differences in findings is because there is a wide range of what is “normal development”. Children develop at different rates. This is why Speech Pathologists refer to these norms as a guide only. Nevertheless, certain patterns of acquisition have been identified. Shriberg (1993) noticed the following developmental pattern:
- Early 8 sounds: m, n, j, b, w, d, p, h
- Middle 8 sounds: t, ng (as in ‘sing’), k, g, f, v, ch (as in ‘child’), j (as in ‘jam’)
- Late 8 sounds: sh, zh, l, r, s, z, th (as in ‘thing’), TH (as in ‘that’)
According to Shriberg’s findings, we would expect a 3 year old to be able to say words containing the early 8 sounds (e.g. mud, pat, bad), but we would expect this child to possibly make errors with their production of some of the middle sounds and most of the late sounds.
The typical errors that children make as they learn their speech sounds are called phonological processes. Each phonological process typically ‘goes away’ or ‘resolves’ by itself by a certain age.
Here are some examples of typical phonological processes and the age by which they should no longer be used:
Final consonant deletion
This is where the final consonant sound is left off
E.g. I have a red ball → I ha a re ba
Age eliminated by: 3 years 3 months
This is where sounds that are normally produced further back in the mouth (e.g. k, g, sh) are produced with the tongue tip in the front of the mouth (e.g. t, d, s)
E.g. the girl cuddled the black cat → the dirl tuddled the blat tat
Age eliminated by: 3 years and 6 months
Consonant Cluster Reduction
In English, many words contain 2-3 adjacent consonants (e.g. strange). These groups of adjacent consonants are called “clusters”. This error pattern occurs when a consonant is omitted from a cluster
E.g. two blue spots and six green squares → two bu pots and sik geen quares.
Age of elimination: 4 years
Weak syllable deletion
Words can be broken up into syllables. Syllables can be strong, like “ma” in”to-ma-to” or weak, like “um” in “um-bre-lla”. Weak syllable deletion occurs when the weak syllable is omitted from the word
E.g. the elephant sat on the banana → the efent sat on the nana.
Age of elimination: 4 years
This is where phonemes called “affricates” – “ch” and “j” – are produced as “fricatives” – “sh” and “zh”
E.g. The dog chewed the judge’s shoe → the dog shewed the zhuzhes shoe
Age of elimination: 5 years
This is where “r” is pronounced as “w” and “l” is pronounced as “y” or “w”
E.g. Ronnie the lion roared at the little lamb → Wonnie the yiyon woawd at the yitu yam
Age of elimination: 5-6 years
*This list is not exhaustive.
By the time children start school, they should be saying almost all of their 44 phonemes correctly and they should be understood by an unfamiliar listener.
When phonological processes persist beyond the expected age of elimination, this then becomes a phonological disorder. Phonological disorders should be treated to prevent negative social and academic consequences such as:
- being misunderstood by others
- being asked to repeat themselves, which could lead to frustration or embarrassment
- being teased by peers
- having difficulty with literacy