Children’s speech sounds develop with key milestones similar to other areas of development. Younger children will have less clear speech and make swaps with speech sounds that are completely normal e.g. the young child who says /wabbit/ for rabbit!
When to worry about unclear speech
Children’s speech sound errors pose cause for concern if they are causing the child lots of frustration, if the errors represent a disorder rather than a delay and/or if the the speech sound substitutions (swaps) persist beyond the age at which they should mature.
This fabulous table produced by The American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) shows the types of typically developing swaps made by English speaking children and when we should expect these to disappear.
What causes unclear speech?
There can be many different causes for speech sound difficulties so it is important to get an assessment from a Speech and Language Therapist to help identify the root cause. Once this is identified, an appropriate therapy plan can be put in place. Difficulties may arise from muscle weakness or co-ordination issues, sensory issues such as hearing and attention control, issues with how and where speech sounds are stored in the brain or wider developmental problems.
What does speech therapy for unclear speech look like?
There are a variety of different approaches to treating speech sound difficulties, as as mentioned above it is important to identify the root cause. One approach to targeting speech sound errors that arise from incorrect storage of speech sounds (aka phonological difficulties) is the Cycles Approach by Hodson and Paden (1991). This approach involves the targeting of multiple speech sounds by focusing on a group of errors called a speech sound process e.g. targeting lots of words that begin with a /k/ or /g/ where the child swaps the first sound for a sound made at the front of the mouth e.g. cat becomes /tat/ and go becomes /do/. This approach also involves cycling through multiple speech sound processes over time so that lots of errors can be targeted and the child begins to transfer learning more quickly. This is found to be particularly effective for those children with more severe speech sound difficulties but can also be beneficial for children with any number of speech sound substitutions.