My child’s speech cannot be understood

Don’t take our word for it – check out what our past and present clients are saying.

“My child’s speech cannot be understood”

Short on Time? – Skip to our checklist below

Important Note before you start reading:

If, after reading this, you suspect your child has a speech sound disorder, complete our #checklist and contact us for a consultation as soon as possible, or contact your local SLT (SLP for our United States readers).

Research backs up the fact early recognition and diagnosis of speech sound disorders can help children overcome speech problems.

Don’t delay and hope they will ‘grow out of it’ – get an expert SLT/SLP’s opinion in the first instance.

“My child cannot be understood.”

“S/he cannot pronounce certain words correctly.”

“S/he gets frustrated when trying to talk.”

“They avoid using certain words, or even talking at all.”

“It really upsets them – or me!”

Sound familiar?

While it is normal for young children to have trouble saying words in the right way, usually, from age 5 onwards, the words are becoming much clearer. By age 8, children typically are able to use all speech sounds correctly.

Speech is a key human characteristic and allows us to gather information, share ideas and generally interact in human life. It is such a normal part of everyday life that we can often forget how amazing being able to speak is. The sheer process of speaking requires the exact coordination of lots of body parts to work in tandem, smoothly, such as the brain, neck, chest, and abdomen for example.

A speech sound disorder impacts a person’s ability to make sounds that other people in turn will recognise and then allow them to communicate with each other.

Speech Sound Disorders – What are they?

Often you may hear the phrases ‘Speech Sound Disorder’, ‘Language Disorder’, or ‘Communication Disorder’ used in the same breath (or article).

A speech sound disorder is not the same as a language disorder.

  • A speech sound disorder prevents people from forming the correct speech sounds.
  • A language disorders affect a person’s ability to learn words or understand what others say to them.

Both speech and language disorders make it more difficult for a person to express their thoughts and feelings, and to understand what others are communicating.

A communication disorder is a significant difficulty or inability to relay, interpret and/or exchange information, for any reason, from one person to another.

This article is focusing specifically on speech sound disorders, what they are, how to quickly notice them, and what to do to help.

ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) defines speech sound disorders as ‘an umbrella term referring to any difficulty or combination of difficulties with perception, motor production, or phonological representation of speech sounds and speech segments—including phonotactic rules governing permissible speech sound sequences in a language.’

Put more simply we can think of them as the ‘Breakdown of ability to clearly articulate your words and to be heard and understood.’

Speech sound disorders can be organic or functional in nature.

  • Organic speech sound disorders result from an underlying motor/neurological, structural, or sensory/perceptual cause.
  • Functional speech sound disorders are idiopathic—they have no known cause.

ASHA has a really good pictorial example of what they term the Speech Sound Disorders Umbrella (shown below)

Diagram: ASHA (https://www.asha.org/)

Types of Speech Sound Disorder

There are two types of Speech Sound Disorder:



Organic Speech Sound Disorders

Organic speech sound disorders include those resulting from:

  • motor/neurological disorders (e.g., childhood apraxia of speech and dysarthria)
  • structural abnormalities (e.g., cleft lip/palate and other structural deficits or anomalies), and,
  • sensory/perceptual disorders (e.g., hearing impairment).

Functional Speech Sound Disorders

Functional speech sound disorders include those related to the motor production of speech sounds and those related to the linguistic aspects of speech production.

These are called articulation disorders and phonological disorders by SLTs.

  • Articulation disorders focus on errors (e.g., distortions and substitutions) in production of individual speech sounds.
  • Phonological disorders focus on predictable, rule-based errors (e.g., fronting, stopping, and final consonant deletion) that affect more than one sound. Phonological disorders can be consistent or inconsistent.

It is not an exact science to differentiate between articulation and phonological disorders so SLTs often use the term, “speech sound disorder”.

Depending on the study you read, it is estimated that between 2.3% to 24.6% of school aged children have some type of Speech Delay or Speech sound disorder.

Signs and Symptoms

The first time a parent may start looking up this topic is when they notice some speech errors from their child. Signs and symptoms of functional speech sound disorders include the following:

Examples of Functional Speech Sound Disorders

We have a #Checklist at the end of this page which covers the main questions that you can answer for your child. This can give an indication if you should seek assistance. (In all cases, if you are worried, contact a speech therapist).

Important note on Accents and Dialects

Accents, and dialects, are not speech sound disorders but, rather, only reflect differences in how words are stressed and pronounced.

The dictionary definition of an accent is ‘a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class’.

Accents can be based on where you live, such as someone from Dublin sounds different to someone from Cork.
What we call a ‘Foreign’ accent happens when the phonetic characteristics of one language are carried over to the second language.

There is no accent “better” or “worse” than another.

Not all sound substitutions or omissions are seen as speech errors. Often, they can be part of a speaker’s dialect.
Dialects cause variations across all linguistic parameters, like phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
An example can be the “d” sound is used for a “th” sound (e.g., “dis” for “this”).

It is vital to distinguish between accents and dialects and when something may be a communicative disorder. This is something that your SLT will take into account when working with your child.

How to help your child with their unclear speech.

Learning to speak properly is HARD.  And there are many things that can happen to make a child’s speech unclear. 

It’s actually not laziness, it’s a breakdown in their speech learning system.

While every child is different, and at CATTS we recognise that the parent is usually the expert on their own child, there are some general things you can try which should help most children with a speech sound disorder at home.

  • React to what the child says; not how clearly s/he speaks
  • Don’t make the child repeat the words
  • Build self esteem
  • Don’t pretend to understand
  • Remember: children may be able to articulate a sound but not use it in words
  • Encourage speech practice by having one-on-one conversations with them about his or her interests
  • Encourage them to speak, answer questions
  • Develop a procedure for the child to ask for help
  • Strive for an easy and relaxed communicative atmosphere
  • Model acceptance and understanding (especially with siblings/friends)
  • Be patient and let the child finish what (s)he’s saying

What to ask others to do to help

By others, we mean childminders, grandparents, friends they see frequently, etc

The aim is to build a supporting environment for your child.

If they spend time at a childminders, or are meeting other family members, these few pointers can help them, help your child.

  • Be the child’s ally at all times
  • Show understanding, patience, and acceptance
  • Do not tolerate teasing or bullying by anyone about the speech disorder
  • Do not point out speech disorder

If you find it difficult, especially if visiting the in-laws ? to generate this support, it may be useful to have a short call with the family members first, so they are on the same page.

You can also take our ‘Speech Sound Disorders‘ course on our Online Training page, and show it to them – which can help them better understand.

Often, especially with grandparents, they will really want to help, and it will make things easier if you are all using the same approaches to support.

When to see a Speech and Language Therapist:

If you are concerned about your child’s articulation, take a note of some of the words you are noticing that they have difficulty with.

This will help when you talk to a Speech and Language Therapist. Giving specific examples helps the SLT narrow down the areas to initially focus on, e.g.
“She can’t copy me when I ask her to say ‘sh’”

“When we’re doing Jolly Phonics, she’ll do the ‘puppy rip the rag’ gesture, but make an ‘oo’ sound.”

“When he says ‘sister,’ it sounds like it’s coming out his nose.”

If you write these errors down, it can be helpful to refer to when you talk with the SLT.

The information is very helpful for the SLT in selecting appropriate assessment tools.

Please refer to our Checklist below to see if your child shows some of the following.

You should contact one of our Speech and Language Therapists if you check ‘Yes’ to any of these questions.
You may benefit from Online Speech and Language Therapy.

Black, Vahratian, & Hoffman, 2015

Law, Boyle, Harris, Harkness, & Nye, 2000

Shriberg, Tomblin, & McSweeny, 1999

Wren, Miller, Peters, Emond, & Roulstone, 2016

ASHA (asha.org)

Speech Sound Disorders 101 – CATTS Online training.

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