Speech Development and Toddler Talk

Because the age at which children master speech sounds may vary by as much as two years, it is not uncommon for parents to become frustrated and upset when they see their child struggling with something that comes so naturally for many children. The best support you can offer starts with knowing which speech behaviors are normal at a particular age, which aren’t and how you can help your child learn to speak clearly.

Reasons Language Skills May Be Delayed
Research has shown a home environment that provides lots of stimulation and interaction between a parent and a child can enhance a young child’s learning. In contrast, if a child doesn’t hear stories read aloud, or the people in her environment don’t acknowledge her or respond when she speaks, the development of speech and language skills may be delayed.

If a child has a physical or mental impairment, such as a cleft palate or hearing impairment, he may not be able to speak as clearly as his other children his age. However, in most cases, a child will have good hearing perception and intellectual ability, and no signs of physical or brain problems, but will not be able to speak as clearly as his peers. Parents often feel perplexed when told their child’s difficulties may be due to immature development, rather than to a known cause.

What Parents Can Do

1. Speak clearly, naturally and, most of all, correctly.

Speaking clearly and naturally includes establishing eye contact, speaking at an easy-to-understand rate and saying sounds precisely.

2. Monitor your child for ear infections.
If you suspect your child has an ear infection, call your physician immediately. A temporary mild hearing loss from an ear infection can slow a child’s ability to understand language and her ability to say words clearly and correctly. If she does have an ear infection, remember to take her back to the doctor for a follow-up visit to make sure her hearing has returned to normal.

3. Model the correct way to say a word.
If your child says a word incorrectly, in most cases, it is wise not to ask him to repeat the word. (Of course, if your child is participating in speech therapy, follow the speech/language pathologist’s instructions). Even though many children who say sounds incorrectly have good hearing acuity, they are not able to discriminate between the correct and incorrect production of a troublesome sounds. Therefore, give your child many opportunities to hear the sound modeled (said) correctly.

4. Give your child many opportunities to hear troublesome sounds pronounced correctly.
This will make is easier for him to hear the difference between the correct and incorrect productions of sounds, and make it easier for him to say the sound when he is developmentally ready. Try the activities below. As you and your child interact, emphasize the troublesome sound by saying it as often as possible.

If your child is having trouble saying “f” sounds:
• Talk about things you can do with your feet.
• Make a favorites list (favorite foods, animals, toys).

If your child is having trouble saying “k” and “g” sounds:
• Play with cars in a toy garage.
• Talk about the keys on your key chain.

If your child is having trouble saying “sh” and “ch” sounds:
• Find five things you can shut.
• Play with chalk on the sidewalk.
• Push your child on a swing and talk about other things you can push.

5. Expect your child to speak clearly.
It is important for you to encourage and expect your child to speak the best he can. Be patient, and tell him how proud you are when he tries his best. If your child has all his wants and needs met without having to say a word, he is, most likely, not getting a lot of opportunities to practice saying speech sounds.

6. Prepare your child for new situations.
Children who must struggle to communicate often feel self-conscious or apprehensive, especially when facing the unknown. Talk to your child about a new situation she may be facing. Rehearse the words she might hear or say in this situation. Ask your librarian to help you find a book about an upcoming situation, such as a trip to the hospital, the birth of a new sibling, or the first day at school.

7. Educate others about your child’s speech difficulties.
Of course, you would never allow anyone to tease, laugh, or imitate your child’s speech mistakes. Privately talk to his preschool teacher or babysitter and explain his difficulties. If possible, offer helpful ideas. If he has older siblings, talk to them and enlist their help in modeling good sound productions.


Dorothy P. Dougherty has worked with children and adults in school, clinical and private settings for more than 30 years. She is the author of “Teach Me How to Say it Right: Helping Your Child with Articulation Problems” (New Harbinger Publications