Worried about your child’s unclear speech? In this article, we would like to share the current international perspective on the relationship between speech sound difficulties (or unclear speech) and communication skills of the child. We aim to shed some light on this matter, and discuss why some intervention suggestions may not be the right help your child needs.
Speech sound difficulties, or unclear speech is perhaps one of the most common reasons parents seek speech therapy intervention. It is the most obvious sign that a child who is able to talk has communication difficulties. Research has shown that there are factors that may need to be addressed in order to help a child speak clearly.
Clear and precise speech is not just important for verbal communication. The ability to read and write (in English and letter based languages) is linked to the ability to produce sounds precisely. This has a significant implication on later literacy development. Early intervention for speech sound problems or unclear speech is important.
Speech sound development
Speech sounds develop as a child’s language develops. By the time a child is 2 years old, his / her speech is 50% clear, and 75% clear by the time the child is 3 years of age. By 4 years old, the child is readily understood by adults outside of his / her environment. For more information on speech sound development, click here
In some cases, children have difficulties with a couple of sounds, like /s/ or /r/. Some children take a little more time to fully master these sounds.
Speech sound errors or substitutions
The presence of speech sound errors or substitutions contribute towards unclear speech. The most common ones are making /t/ sounds instead of /k/ sounds, so a word like “KEY” sounds the same as “TEA”. Another common one is substitution /t/ for /s/ sounds – so “SUN” sounds like “TON”, or “SO” sounds like “TOE”. There are a number of such errors and if you would like to learn more, here is a link to common speech sound substitutions.
Some times the errors are not consistent. Some times the child is able to produce the sound and other times, the sound is produced incorrectly. These errors also contribute towards unclear speech.
Is unclear speech due to hearing loss, or a hearing problem?
In most cases, unclear speech is not due to reduced ability to hear. If you are unsure, a hearing test by a qualified Audiologist can help determine if your child’s hearing is adequate for acquiring speech and language.
Is it due to weak muscles? Should we do more mouth exercises?
It is possible, and an evaluation by a speech therapist would help determine if the speech sound difficulties are due to muscle weakness. Most times, weakness of muscles for speech is not an isolated problem, but part of conditions where muscles of the body are not able to functional optimally, for example in a child with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome or other neurodevelopmental conditions. Isolated weakness of muscles for speech is unusual. Unless there is evidence that the muscles are weak, doing more exercises on those muscles will not result in clearer speech.
What else can cause unclear speech in a child?
There are a number of factors including the ones listed above that can result in unclear speech. Research in recent years have led to the professional community adopting a new model in understanding the link between unclear speech and underlying language difficulties. For example, the child who is constantly on the move and unaware of their surroundings may not be able to learn all the sounds associated with a word, and hence may not have learned the how to produce the word without errors. Similarly, a child who does not understand the language would have difficulties saying the sounds of the words clearly. The model proposed below helps us get to the root of the problem when a child presents with unclear speech
In this model, speech sound production in a young child is on the top of this pyramid. In order for a child to be able to pronounce words well, he / she must have a firm foundation of the skills below that.
The common factors explained
The most common factors which present are discussed below. The importance of play is available here.
Expressive Language and unclear speech
Expressive language is the ability for the child to verbally communicate his / her needs and wants. As children get older, they learn to say things in a number of different ways. The ability to speak in proper sentences or phrases for a given age is an important skill that children should have. Difficulties at this level will often show up as unclear speech. This may also manifest as speech delay or language delay in toddlers.
Before we can form good sentences, we need to be able to understand what is being said to us. Think about our own ability to understand a foreign / non-native language – generally, we can understand more than we can speak in that language (except perhaps in learnt phrases). Functionally, we would be able to understand better and have more difficulties forming sentences. Equally, children who have poorer understanding would have challenges in expressing themselves in sentences and this in turn affects their ability to speak clearly.
Common asked questions
Would attending phonics classes help with unclear speech?
Learning how letter representations of word sounds does not have a direct impact on a child’s ability to produce them accurately. In phonics classes, children are taught that certain sounds such as /f/ may also be spelt /ph/ or /gh/. However, this does not help them to produce the sound accurately.
My child can imitate me when I correct his / her speech but speech is still unclear. Is there something wrong?
Most times, children are able to produce the target sounds in isolation and while imitating. But in connected speech, or when the child is speaking in at phrase or sentence level, the other elements such as less than adequate language skills come into play, and result in unclear speech. Targeting speech sounds at imitation level is working only on the top part of the pyramid. Perhaps, look also at your child’s other language abilities and address the issues at the appropriate level. If you are not sure if your child’s language skills are adequately developed, a full speech- language evaluation might be helpful.
Still worried about Unclear Speech?
For more information on speech sound disorders and treatment suggestions, click here.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech sound difficulties, call us to speak to one of our friendly speech therapists for a phone consultation.