It can confusing and alarming for parents when their child has difficulties with their speech. This can range from mild speech difficulties when they miss a few sounds, or it can be severe, making them difficult to understand and causing a lot of frustration and anxiety- for everyone involved! Whichever is the case, there’s a huge amount that parents can do to help- this guide is everything you need to know to help your child speak clearly. I hope it’s helpful for you!
What skills are needed for speech?
Speech is something that develops gradually. To help your child speak clearly, it’s important to understand the foundational skills that must be in place for clear speech to develop.
Firstly, a child will need to develop strong listening and attention skills, as well as play and interaction. They will need to have strong foundation in understanding the language others use, as well as being able to use language- single words and then full sentences.
Speech is actually the very last piece of the puzzle. By speech, I mean the sounds that children use; how they pronounce their words. Although it can be obvious when a child has speech sound difficulties, the stages that come before in the pyramid must be in place first.
After all, the more a child uses their language, the more opportunities they are getting to fine tune their speech sounds. They need practice in attending, listening, playing, interacting, and both understanding and using language in order to develop great speech!
Another way to think of it is this- if your child has unclear speech, but they are still only using single words, it is much more important to build up the amount of words they know, and their ability to combine words together to make sentences. In doing this, they will have the opportunity to practice speech sounds which might even develop without specific support.
In other words, parents should focus on building the foundations of speech as this will be a massive help for your child to speak clearly.
When should you be worried?
In the same way that a child will say parts of words (e.g. ‘da’ for ‘drink’), then single words (e.g. ‘drink!’), words together (e.g. ‘want drink’), and finally complete sentences, (e.g. ‘mummy can I have a drink please?’), so children develop speech gradually and in bits and pieces.
One way to think of it is to talk about early sounds, middle sounds, and late sounds, but these do not develop neatly one after the other. The following is a very simple guideline. Asha have a Speech Development Chart you can check out if you want more detail.
Early sounds: m, n, y, b, w, d, p, h
Usually develops between 18 months and 3 years of age.
Middle sounds: t, ng, k, g, f, v, ch, dg
Usually develops between 2-6 years of age.
Late sounds: sh, l, r, s, z, th
Usually develops between 3-8 years of age.
Remember this is just a guideline!
Your child is likely to develop speech roughly in this order, but it is extremely variable between children, and is almost never as neat as these three stages would suggest.
They might, for example, have developed all of the early sounds, most of the middle, and a few of the late. They might even be using sounds in some positions but not in others.
For example, they might use the /k/ sound at the end of words (e.g. bike) for months before they start using it at the front (e.g. ‘cat’ might still be said as ‘tat’). This means that the child has not consolidated this sound.
When a sound is consolidated, the child uses it confidently in every position of words- at the beginning of words, in the middle, and at the ends of words.
It is very common for a child entering school to still be talking about ‘wabbits eating cawots’ (rabbits eating carrots) and having a ‘baf’ (bath).
Although these speech errors might make their speech sound immature, it is normal for the age of five- their speech is ‘developmentally appropriate’.
However, if a five year old is not yet using the /p/ sound, this is not developmentally appropriate. It is not typical for their age, and could be a reason to seek support to help your child speak clearly.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND
One of the most awkward situations for anyone is to be in a situation of communication breakdown. This is especially true when you cannot understand what someone else is saying. When this happens to us as adults, often we smile and nod. This is something we can get away with occasionally.
However, if you struggle to understand your child, just pretending that you do will quickly have an impact on your relationship.
It is much better to be honest with the child when you’re not sure what they are saying and use these FIVE STRATEGIES to support them to give you more clues.
SHOW– “Can you show me what you mean?”
NARROW IT DOWN– “Is it to do with this or this?” For example, is it something inside or something outside?
REDUCE– “Can you tell me just one word?” You are not asking this to reduce the amount of language that your child uses, but to establish the context of what they are saying in a tricky situation. Sometimes knowing the context is all you need to understand the rest of what they are saying.
GET A CONTEXT– “Is it to do with something…” e.g. that we did today? Again, many parents report that they can understand a child when they know what the context is.
RE-PHRASE– “Can you tell me in a different way?” Your child might be able to use different words or describe in a different way that might be easier for you to understand.
REPEAT– When you have not understood the whole sentence, but only caught a few words, repeat back anything that you have understood. Then the child does not have to repeat the whole sentence again. If the child says, “at the weekend I went to the zoo with mummy and daddy and I saw the lions and tigers.” It is much less discouraging if you say, “oh! You went to the zoo with mummy and daddy and you…?” as the child will only have to say a few words again. However, if you simply say, “what?” the child has to say the whole sentence again and is likely to feel frustrated. You will have a much better chance of understanding the few words you missed the first time than if they repeat the whole lot all over again.
If you are still not able to understand what the child is saying, you may need to ask if it’s an important one for you to figure out. If not, there might be times when you both decide to leave it and move on to something else.
HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD TO SPEAK CLEARLY THROUGHOUT THE DAY
KEY STRATEGY- MODELLING
MODEL– When your child mispronounces a word, model the word back to him/her naturally in your response. Don’t put pressure on your child to repeat the sound correctly. However, you can stress the target sound a little in your response.
For example, if your child says: ‘can I have the tup?’
You could reply: ‘The cup? OK, here’s the cup. This is your favourite cup, isn’t it? Cup.’
WHY? By doing this, your child gets to hear the sound they got wrong a number of times. You are helping your child to really notice the sound, and eventually they will begin to copy the way you have said it.
5 KEY PRINCIPLES TO HELP YOUR CHILD TO SPEAK CLEARLY
These are 5 key principles to keep in mind that will help your child to speak clearly. These work best if you can identify what sound your child is struggling with. Make it a ‘target sound.’
The secret to helping your child to improve their speech is to repeat it throughout the day. Make it relevant, specific and part of a routine.
Think of times throughout your day (e.g. lunch time, bath time) when you can incorporate the target sound. Plan some words you could use. For example, if your child’s target sound is ‘k’, you might pick ‘outside time’ as your target time of day. You could put on your jacket or coat. Then kick a ball, play catch, ride your trike or bike, or take a walk. These are great opportunities to model the sound!
Repeating the sound a lot through the day will naturally help your child to speak clearly and their overall speech to improve. You will give them numerous models for how the word is said. You are helping your child to really notice and listen to the sound. This will pave the way for the child to be able to use this sound correctly themselves.
Children tend to invest more into a task if it is meaningful or relevant to them. Try to focus on a sound within their everyday life, and when possible, model the sound around their key interests. If your child struggles with the sound ‘s’ and they loves insects, you could look at the spider and bugs, and talk about how things are small, how many legs, and all the other things you can see.
Emphasize the sound as you use these words and, because the child is interested, you will achieve much more than if you are trying to coax them to sit down and follow your agenda to work on their speech.
4. MAKE IT VISUAL
Consider setting up a visual cue (write the sound on a card or piece of paper) to remind you both of the target sound throughout the day.
Putting the visual in a place where you see it often will remind you to model the sound throughout the day.
5. MAKE IT SPECIFIC
Making your modelling as specific as you can will have a big impact and will help your child to speak clearly. For example, when you model a ‘k’ you might say: cat- did you hear the ‘k’ sound? I made it right at the back of my throat. K. Cat. Or if you are modelling ‘s’ you might say: sun- did you hear the ‘s’ sound? My teeth were together like this, and it was very slow. Sss. Sun.
FUN ACTIVITIES TO SUPPORT AND DEVELOP SPEECH
Develop Speech Through Reading
Use the written word to increase your child’s ability to see, hear, and be aware of a particular sound.
Be explicit with your child when using reading to focus on speech sounds, e.g. ‘We’re going to listen out for the /k/ sound during this story.’
Use easy texts when you want the child to focus on their speech.
Before reading the words of the story, look at the pictures and model and discuss the speech sounds that occur.
You could ask your child to find all of the words containing the target sound in a page of a story.
Make cards with different words/pictures from the story that contain the target sound. Use these cards for a variety of activities. Put them in a jar and then use them for different games.
Related: 5 Simple Tips to Make Reading With Your Kids Educational and Fun
Build Phonological Awareness
Using lots of rhymes and songs with your child will support their phonological awareness and speech sound development. This will have a knock on effect and will ultimately help your child to speak more clearly.
Another way to do this is to go on a ‘Sound Hunt’ in the home. However, be aware that finding something beginning with a sound is more difficult that listening to a word and determining if it begins with the sound.
Create a speech bag by collecting small objects that contain the target sound. Use the bag to play guessing games with your child (you describe what is inside the bag and they guess what object it is- one clue will be: ‘it starts with the sound…’)
Place a selection of 3-4 objects on the floor/table that begin with very different sounds. Play ‘I Spy’ (emphasize the beginning sounds). Prompt your child as much as you need for them to guess the object- initially you may even need to say the whole word.
Play guessing games together, choosing items in a room that have your sound, and let your child try to guess what object you are thinking.
Create a collage of pictures with your target sound. Cut things out from magazines and papers that have the sound you want.
Have fun using the target sound during a craft. If your target sound is “S Blends”, you could build a crafty snowman. Target sounds could include: snow, snowball, scarf, scary, smile, sparkles, stick, stones, stars, slippery, and stomach.
Have your child lie on the floor for one minute and listen carefully to what they can hear. After a minute, ask them to share to the rest of the group the kinds of sounds they could hear.
Give your child animal pictures/objects. Sing Old McDonald and ask them to listen out for the animals, and hold up their picture/object as soon as each one is mentioned.
TIPS TO HELP YOUR CHILD REMEMBER TO SPEAK CLEARLY THROUGHOUT THE DAY
When you help your child to speak more clearly, they are learning to use new speech sounds in words and in conversation, they will benefit from little reminders throughout the day.
If the child has had lots of practice with the target sound and is able to use it comfortably when asked, but finds it hard to remember to use the sound in their everyday conversation, asking them to ‘fix-it-up’ can be a gentle way to prompt them throughout the day.
Put a marble or cotton wool ball in a Reward Jar every time your child uses the speech sound spontaneously throughout one time in the day (e.g. during dinner). Negotiate a reward for when the jar is full.
Pick a High 5 Word for each day and then ask your child to do the High 5 Word a few times throughout the day. Count off 5 repetitions of the word, and then give a High 5.
Want a little more?
Grab your free copy of the Speech and Language Strategies Essential Cheat Sheets. Print off and use to help with these strategies to boost your child’s speech and language.
Although speech difficulties can be obvious and very challenging, it is just one aspect of the whole picture of communication.
Speech development relies on a strong foundation of Attention and Listening, Play and Interaction, Understanding of Language, and the Use of Language. It also both supports and is supported by Phonological Awareness.
These foundational skills provide the platform for speech to develop. Like all of these skills, speech is developmental, and does not develop all at once, but in bits and pieces. It is learnt through natural environments as children listen to and interact with those around them.
Modelling correct speech sounds is an extremely powerful way to help your child to speak clearly; especially when it is done in a way that does not put pressure on your child, or cause their anxiety to spike.
This is not to say that additional, specialized help is not, at times, required. But there is so much that you can do as a parent to help your child to speak more clearly in a fun and enjoyable way.
When this is part of your everyday life, you’ll also notice benefits in confidence, participation, social interactions, and literacy.
It’s worth the effort!
Hope you enjoyed reading and got some new ideas that you can use to help your child to speak clearly.
Don’t forget to share this with others if you liked it, and comment with your thoughts!
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