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Toddler talk - mastering pronunciation skills

Toddler telephones

Do you understand your two-year old, but others struggle to? Is your toddler talking differently than other children his/her age? Does your child struggle to pronounce certain words?

It is developmentally appropriate for your child to exhibit sound production errors in the early years as they learn to talk. He/she might not pronounce certain sounds correctly the first time and may continue to do so after several attempts, but this is not always cause for concern. Speech and Language Therapist for Nubabi Lindi Bester shares what you need to know about your child’s speech production skills and when to ask for help.

The difference between speech and language

Yes, speech and language are two completely different things. Both speech and language are necessary to communicate a message and not fully developing the one can impact the other.

Speech is the sounds (vowel and consonant combinations) that we use to express language. It includes the production of sounds, rhythm, pattern and sound quality. It involves the precisely coordinated muscle actions of the jaw, lips, tongue, and vocal tract to produce the recognisable sounds that make up language.

While speech involves the physical motor ability to talk, language is a symbolic, rule governed system that allows people to express their ideas in a meaningful way. Language may be expressed verbally or through writing. We also make use of gestures, such as waving to greet someone or shrugging our shoulders to indicate ‘I don’t know’.

Language can be divided in receptive language and expressive language.

Receptive language is the ability to understand information, or the “input”. This can include spoken (sounds, words and sentences), written and nonverbal (gestures and body language) language. It comprises the ability to understand that a question requires an answer and an instruction requires an action.

Expressive language is what a child uses or the “output.”  It is one’s ability to put thoughts into words and sentences that are grammatically accurate. This contains not only words but also the grammar rules that dictate how words are combined into phrases, sentences and paragraphs as well as the use of gestures and facial expressions.

You might notice that your toddler understands more language that he/she is using. This is typical development as a child begins to develop some understanding of language long before they begin to express themselves.

Why you need to know the difference

If you switch on a light and nothing happens, you need to know if the electricity is off or if you need to change the light bulb. If your child has difficulty communicating, it’s very important to know if he/she has a language difficulty or a speech difficulty as the way forward will differ. Furthermore, it is important to know if the difficulty is a delay that requires intervention or if it is a skill still developing age appropriately.

Someone who has a speech difficulty has difficulty pronouncing sounds. They understand what is said to them, and they’re able to use words and sentences correctly, but their speech is not clear. For example, if a child says, “I see a big yeyyow pawwot in the twee” it is a clear indication that he/she has a speech difficulty i.e. he cannot pronounce the R or the L sound.

Someone who has trouble with language might be able to pronounce words clearly, but it can be difficult to understand the meaning of what they’re saying. For example, if a child says, “I see yewwow parrot big up tree!” it indicates difficulties with their language as the child is not using the correct grammar/sentence structure.

Most common speech production errors

There are 24 consonants and 20 vowels in the English language and the most commonly mispronounced sounds are /l/, /s/, /r/ and /th/.

When should sounds be mastered

Speech development starts from the moment your child is born. There is no strict developmental hierarchy and the exact pace at which the production of individual sounds develops varies among children. However, researchers found a pattern in the developmental sequence of when children master the production of English speech sound.

The table below indicates the ages by which 75% of the children in a study pronounced individual consonants accurately. These norms were established for a population of Australian children by Kilminster and Laird (1978). 

Age by which 75% of children used the speech sound listed accurately. Speech sounds
3 years h as in he
zh as in measure
y as in yes
w as in we
ng as in sing m as in me
n as in no
p as in up
k as in car
t  as in to
b as in be
g as in go
d as in do
3 years 6 months f as in if
4 years l as in lay
sh as in she
ch as in chew
4 years 6 months j as in jaw
s as in so
z as in is
5 years r as in red
6 years v as in van
8 years th as in this
8 years 6 months th as in thing

Source: Bowen, C. (2011). Table4: Phonetic Development. Retrieved from on 01/07/2017.

Although limited research has been done on the acquisition of speech sounds in South African languages, we know that English speaking children should be able to produce most sounds by the age of 7. Speech errors that persist beyond age 7 are considered residual articulation errors and will require speech therapy.

How you can help your child

  • Get down to your toddler’s level and let him see your mouth movements as you are saying the sounds or words, especially those that cause the most difficulty.
  • Refrain from using negative feedback such as “No, don’t say it like that, say it like this…”. Rather praise your child for trying to produce the correct sound.
  • If your child produces a sound incorrectly, repeat what he/she said modelling the correct pronunciation while emphasising the correct production of the sound which was in error.
  • Emphasise and repeat sounds in words that are difficult for your child while reading to them.
  • Try not to label your child’s speech errors as a problem and try not to discuss this in front of them as this might impact their self-confidence.
  • Do not allow friends or relatives to tease your child.

When to seek a speech assessment

As children learn to speak, they will have errors in their speech. We expect it, and most kids will go on to learn how to accurately produce all the sounds without any intervention needed. However, if you have difficulty understanding your child and his/her speech contains many pronunciation errors, especially after the age of three years, I would recommend that you consult a Speech-Language Therapist.

Consult a Speech-Language Therapist when your child:

  • of 1 – 2 years says p, b, m, h, and w incorrectly in words most of the time 
  • of 2 – 3 years says k, g, f, t, d, and n incorrectly in words most of the time 
  • of 2 – 3 years produce speech that is unclear, even to familiar people

If you look at the ages of the development of sounds as indicated above, we wouldn’t expect a 3 year old to be able to accurately produce the /l/ sound. Typically children produce the /y/ for the /l/ as in “yeg” for leg or “byue” for blue when they are toddlers and preschoolers. These types of age appropriate errors are referred to as developmental errors and they do not require speech therapy. However, trust your judgement.

Most parents know instinctively if all is not well with their own child’s development. If you have any concerns regarding the development of your child’s speech skills, contact a Speech-Language Therapist for an assessment.

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