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Speech Difficulty in Children (in plain English)

What is a speech difficulty?

Speech is the sounds we make to build the words we use in talking. These are the vowels and consonants we use. A child might have a speech difficulty if:

  • they have difficulty physically making speech sounds
  • they can make speech sounds but they do not use them properly in words

There are two types:

Articulation difficulty

This is when a child is physically unable to make speech sounds.

Phonological difficulty

This is when a child is physically able to make speech sounds but has difficulty using them in words to make sentences.

For example, the child might be physically able to say the sound ‘g’ So, they are able to say the word  “go” when the ‘g’ sound is at the front of the word. But they might not be able to say the word bag, when the ‘g’ sound is at the end of the word. They might say something like “bad” instead. The child has difficulty using the sounds properly in words.

A person can have an articulation difficulty on its own. Or a phonological difficulty on its own. Sometimes, though, a person might have both an articulation and a phonological difficulty at the same time.

Speech delay

As children grow they go through different stages of developing speech. If a child is developing through all expected stages but more slowly than other children, they might have a speech delay.

Speech disorder

If a child’s development is delayed by 2 years this is a big delay. We call this a speech disorder.

Also, if a child cannot say some sounds we expect them to say, but can say sounds that we only expect older children to use, this is unusual. This is a disordered pattern of development. We also call this a speech disorder.

Is speech difficulty called anything else?

  • An articulation difficulty is also called a phonetic difficulty.

What causes a speech difficulty?

We don’t always know why some children have a speech difficulty. But some possible reasons are:

  • hearing difficulties, including ongoing ear infections
  • general developmental delay
  • lack of stimulation
  • learning difficulties
  • conditions that affect the nerves, such as cerebral palsy
  • conditions that affect the structure of the face, such as cleft palate
  • some psychological conditions
  • accidents, such as a head, neck or brain injury

What can I do to help my child develop speech?

The aim is to help your child to listen carefully, be aware of different sounds and to enjoy making sounds. You can try some of the following, depending on the age of your child:

  • Be interested in what your child has to say. This shows you love them and encourages them to keep talking.
  • Try and make sure your child is looking at you when you are talking to them.
  • Speak in short, clear sentences.
  • Talk to your child often such as when you’re out walking, visiting the park or at bath time. But make sure you give opportunities for your child to talk.
  • Make faces in the mirror for your child to copy.
  • Play lip games such as kissing and smiling in the mirror.
  • Make noises that go with toys. For example, the car goes brm brm, the drum goes d when it’s banged, and the ball goes b when it bounces.
  • Sing rhymes such as Round and Round the Garden with the actions. This encourages your child to listen and to copy.
  • Make a scrap book of pictures that all begin with the same sound, e.g. bus, bear, baby, bee – all on the ‘b’ page, cup, car, coat – all on the ‘c’ page.

I’m worried – what should I do?

Arrange an assessment

If you think your child might have a speech difficulty then you should ask for an assessment by a speech-language pathologist (speech and language therapist). Speech-language pathologists are trained to assess speech development. They will be able to tell you if there is nothing to worry about or if there is some difficulty. Sometimes speech difficulties just go away by themselves. Sometimes help is needed to make things better. The speech-language pathologist will explain all this. They will have lots of ideas and many more things you can do to help your child develop speech.

How to arrange an assessment

In some places you can organize an assessment yourself.  Just phone the local speech therapy department.

Sometimes you need your doctor to organize it for you.

If your child is in school, then your child’s teacher will know how to arrange an assessment. The teacher may be able to do this for you.

Hearing test

Because hearing difficulties can cause a speech difficulty, the speech-language pathologist might arrange a hearing test.

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