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Home >  Information A-ZAll Kids Information ArticlesHelp! I Can't Understand What My Child Is Saying!

Help! I Can’t Understand What My Child Is Saying!
by Dorothy P. Dougherty

Have your ever found “sells on the beas” (shells on the beach) or made “totwate tip tooties” (chocolate chip cookies) with your two-year old child? Often, your child’s pronunciation of sounds is endearing and not a cause for concern. That’s because even though saying words clearly is easy for some youngsters, others need a lot of practice before they can say all of the sounds of their language correctly.

When we talk, we put sounds together to form syllables, words, phrases, and sentences. For our message to be easily understood by others, sounds must be pronounced correctly. A child with a speech sound disorder may understand words and phrases and use them to talk. However, if a child’s speech sounds different from his peers, or if he frequently avoids talking because he is hard to understand, he may have a speech sound disorder. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, speech sound disorders are widespread among children, effecting approximately 10 to 15 percent of preschool children and 6 percent of school-age children.

The strongest resource any child can have is a well-informed parent who knows which speech sound errors are normal, which are not, and how to help a child say speech sounds when they are developmentally ready. Research suggests that if speech problems are left unchecked, this may lead to reading and spelling difficulties, social challenges, and self esteem problems.

What is Normal?

The ability to say specific sounds is acquired at different ages. By approximately thirty months of age, most children have learned to produce all the vowel sounds correctly. However, for many children the ability to say consonant sounds, as outlined in the guidelines below, develops more slowly. Note that these are simply guidelines, and it is always wise to seek professional help if you have any questions about your child’s development in any area. You should be able to answer yes to the questions below that pertain to your child’s age level.

1. Do you understand approximately 25 percent of what your eighteen-month-old child is saying?

2. Do you understand approximately 60 -75 percent of what your two-year-old child is saying?

3. Do family members and caregivers understand your three-year-old child’s speech? Does he correctly produce vowels and such sounds as: /p/, /b/, /m/, and /w/ in words and repeat when not understood without becoming frustrated?

4. Do people with whom you do not associate with regularly understand your four-year-old child when he speaks? Does he correctly produce the /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/ and /f/ sounds?

5. Is your five-year-old child’s speech understood my most listeners in all situations?

6. Is your child who is eight to nine years of age able to make all the sounds of his language correctly, including /r/, /s/, /z/, and consonantal blends? A blend is two consonants together, such as: /bl/, /tr/, /sk/, /sn/.

How Does a Child with a Speech Problem Talk?

A child’s difficulty making speech sounds can be severe or mild. The child with a severe problem may have many sound errors, enough that the listener does not understand his message. A child with a mild problem may only have difficulty pronouncing one sound, such as /l/, or /k/. Generally, children make three kinds of errors: omissions, substitutions, and distortions. These errors can occur in the beginning, middle, or end of words.

Omissions: If your child leaves out a sound in a word and does not replace it with any other sound, this is called an omission error: “I left the ba-ball in the yard.” (I left the baseball in the yard.)

Substitutions: A substitution error occurs if your child substitutes one speech sound for another. Some of the most common errors that children make include substituting a /t/ sound for a /k/ sound, or /s/ for the /sh/ and /ch/ sounds: “Yes, tan, I have sotolate milk?” (Yes, can I have chocolate milk?)

Distortions: A distortion error occurs if your child modifies a sound in some way and, as a result, the sound is not pronounced completely accurately. A sound distortion may vary only slightly or sound extremely different from the standard sound. Distortion of the /r/ sound is a common error: “The girl (distorted) who lives next door (distorted).”

As most children mature, their overall speech patterns usually become more understandable. However, some children need speech therapy. A speech/language pathologist is trained to assess, treat, and help prevent speech and language problems in children (beginning at birth) and adults. This professional may work in a variety of settings, including colleges or universities, hospitals or medical clinics, local public schools, and private offices. To find a speech/language pathologist close to your home, you can call your local school district; look in the yellow pages, or call the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association –ASHA (1-800-638-8255). You can also go to the ASHA website,, and click on “Find a Professional.” This will certainly set your mind at ease if you learn your child is developing as he should, and getting help at an early age will make treatment easier. You can relax and have fun helping your child reach his true potential.

Dorothy P. Dougherty, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech/language pathologist who has worked with children and adults in school, clinical, and private settings for over 28 years. She is a certified member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Mrs. Dougherty is the author of How to Talk to Your Baby: A Guide to Maximizing Your Child’s Language and Learning Skills (Perigee/Putnam 2001) and Teach me How to Say it Right: Helping Your Child with Articulation Problems (New Harbinger Publications) released in June, 2005

©2005 Los Angeles Family Magazine



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