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Speech Development in Young Children

by Melanie Potock, M.A., CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist
Longmont, Colorado

You might know people who are really good at it, but talking is not easy, at least when it comes to learning the skill. Parents who notice a problem with their child's speech or language production should discuss it with their child's doctor.

What is articulation?

Learning to talk and produce all the sounds in a language is a developmental process known as articulation. Sounds, syllables, and words are formed when the vocal chords, tongue, jaw, teeth, lips, and palate change the stream of air that is produced by the respiratory system. Articulation is complicated and often difficult to master.

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What is an articulation disorder?

Children have an articulation disorder when they produce the sounds, syllables, or words atypically when compared with other children of the same sex and age. Severity may range from errors occurring on only one sound, such as an "s" or an "r" sound, to multiple errors that affect the intelligibility or clarity of speech and, thus, a child's communication skills.

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Lots of little kids talk funny - what's typical and what's not?

True, kids not only "say the darndest things," but they say them in such a cute way. What is not typical is when the child's speech pattern persists past a certain age or when it impacts intelligibility.

Most atypical sound production can be classified into one of four categories: omissions, substitutions, additions, or distortions. For example, an omission occurs when a child says "oos" for "juice," and an addition occurs when a child adds a sound to a word, such a "joosk" for "juice." Distortions occur when the child produces the sound in an unusual manner that sounds similar to the intended sound.

Atypical sound production may in fact be "typical" at a certain age for boys or girls. As children develop, they generally outgrow these speech patterns. Children should be producing all the sounds in the English language by age 8. However, it is not unusual for a child under age 3 to receive articulation therapy if his/her speech contains multiple errors that affect intelligibility and successful communication.

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What causes an articulation disorder?

Some articulation disorders are caused by a physical disability, such as a cleft palate, hearing loss, or head injury. Some dental problems affect articulation.

Still, many children receive therapy even though they do not exhibit any physical disabilities. These children may simply have learned to produce speech sounds atypically, and the sound errors persisted past the age when their peers had learned the correct productions.

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My child is in elementary school and has trouble with a few sounds. Will he/she grow out of it?

The most common errors that persist past 8 years of age include difficulty producing the "r," "l," and "s" sounds. However, speech therapy is often recommended for children younger than age 8 when any of these errors occur because the longer the incorrect speech pattern persists, the more difficult it is to correct. It is possible that a child will grow out of it, but it is always wise to discuss all articulation issues with a doctor.

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Who do I talk to about this first?

Parents should contact their child's doctor to discuss the possibility of consulting with a certified speech language pathologist if they are concerned about their child's speech or language production. Early intervention is considered the "best practice," and it is especially important when the child is unintelligible to the unfamiliar listener or when the child appears frustrated by his/her difficulty in being understood.

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What is a speech therapist?

A speech language pathologist (commonly know as a speech therapist) holds a master's degree or doctorate, and is trained to evaluate and treat articulation disorders, as well as speech, language, and learning issues. Some speech language therapists have additional training in feeding, augmentative communication, and other highly specialized areas. Some therapists work strictly with adults, while other therapists work with children. It is important to ask the therapist if he/she has experience with articulation disorders in children. Parents should always be sure that the therapist is certified by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association and is licensed by their state.

The speech pathologist will assess the child's ability to say all the sounds in the English language individually, in single words, and/or in conversational speech. The therapist will determine which sound productions are typical for the child's age and which sound productions are atypical.

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Therapy sounds like drudgery - my child will hate it!

Surprisingly to many parents, speech therapy does not have to be a dreaded task. In fact, it does not feel like "therapy" to many children. Speech pathologists incorporate games, movement, computers, crafts, and even cooking into the therapy sessions to facilitate correct speech production.

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About The Author: Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP

Melanie Potock is a certified speech language pathologist in private practice in Colorado. In addition to helping young children develop speech and language skills, she is a national speaker on the topic of "feeding" and picky eaters. She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the executive producer of the acclaimed children's album, Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food! Mel is a regular contributor to national magazines and health related websites, including Pediatric Web and The Tender Foodie. She can be contacted at www.mymunchbug.com.

Copyright 2012 Melanie Potock, M.A., CCC-SLP, All Rights Reserved