From the moment they are born we watch our kids with bated breath, as they strive to achieve one developmental milestone after another. As a parent, it can be one of the most exhilarating and yet worrying processes. The excitement when they achieve something and the all-consuming worry when you fear they are falling behind. When it comes to children and difficulties with speech – sometimes being informed can help you to worry less, support them better and be pro-active when needs be.
What is a speech difficulty?
When we talk about speech difficulties we are referring to difficulty in producing sounds. A speech difficulty is a difficulty in pronouncing sounds the correct way. Children may mix up the sounds at the beginning, in the middle or ends of words. Children may swap sounds and use very definite patterns, making the same mistakes all the time. Or some children will make attempts at words which are different on each occasion.
When should I be concerned about my child’s speech?
If you are concerned about your child’s speech skills or pronunciation of words, the best thing you can do is contact your local speech and language therapy clinic for advice as to whether a referral is needed. Alternatively, you may contact your Public Health Nurse. Your Public Health Nurse may be able to give you some insight into what is expected at your child’s developmental stage.
With regards to speech, different sounds develop at different rates. When a speech and language therapist assesses a child’s speech, a child’s speech is compared to a set of developmental norms. Children have until a certain age to achieve certain sounds – if after this age a child is still having difficulty producing a sound, it is considered delayed and therapy for speech is recommended. For example the /r/ sound. Children will often produce a /w/ sound instead of /r/. E.g. A weally big wabbit (A really big rabbit). This error is actually acceptable until aged 6 and only if a child continues to do it after this time is it considered delayed. Other sounds like difficulty with /l/ or the/k/ and /g/ sounds are expected earlier – by approximately 4 years.
What can I do to help?
Whether your child is still quite young or is perhaps waiting to see a speech and language therapist: if you notice them having difficulty in pronouncing their sounds, there are a few strategies you can try which can help.
1. Be A Good Speech Model
When children are young, errors in their speech can be very cute and endearing. Often in innocence, adults will mimic children’s speech errors and repeat them. Unfortunately doing this only confuses the child as they try to navigate their way through acquiring their speech sounds correctly. Get ‘Face to Face‘ with your child and allow them to see your mouth when you are speaking to them.
2. Don’t Stop & Correct Your Child
Instinctively as parents, when we hear our child doing something wrong, we will sometimes stop and correct them. Parents will often tell me that they get their kids to stop and repeat the sounds after them. As well-intentioned as they seem, I ask parents to try to avoid doing this. The first reason is that stopping a child who is telling you something important, in order to correct their speech, shows them that you are more concerned with how they are saying something than what they are actually trying to tell you. This can be really frustrating for them and long term can discourage them from talking or knock their confidence – neither of which you want to do! The second reason is that often children are unaware of the errors they are making in their speech and so asking them to repeat sounds can often be quite meaningless.
3. Modelling & Recasting
Instead of correcting your child’s speech, what you can do is model the correct form of the word that they are finding tricky. Then try to say and recast it multiple times. The reason for doing this is that it gives your child lots of opportunities to hear the sound being produced correctly in conversation, without feeling like they got it ‘wrong’. When possible it’s good to get face to face when doing this as it gives your child the opportunity to see what your mouth is doing when making those sounds. The whole idea is that the child does not have to repeat the sound after you. Instead by letting them hear the correct version of the word over and over, you are giving them the opportunity to listen to and think about the word.
The example below outlines how you can do this:
Child: Look Mammy a Bire Engine!
Mammy: Oh wow, Fire Fire Fire! That’s right, it’s a Fire engine. That’s a big Fire engine. I bet it’s on it’s way to a fire. Maybe a big Fire. I wonder are there any other Fire engines left in the Fire station. I think there might be four Fire engines in that Fire station.
4. Say Goodbye to Soothers
If your child uses a soother and you’ve noticed they are having some difficulty pronouncing their sounds, its time to let the soother go. As wonderful as they are, soothers aren’t recommended after 12 months as they can affect children’s speech and teeth.