Time to Talk: Practice & Monitoring is Key to Speech Development

Observing and Coaxing Your Child’s Speech Development is A Sensitive Art

If a child seems lost for words, let them work a little to find them.

So we all know that kids make cute speech errors when they are young. My son is almost 40 years old but I still think “hopicopter” when I see a helicopter. It seems like yesterday that he was saying that! One of the dilemmas for a new parent is when family members think something is wrong with a child’s speech. How do you know if they are correct?

First off, speech is developmental. We don’t learn how to use all the speech sounds at once; they come into our speech over years of practice speaking. The first big concern is making sure our children are speaking so they will achieve the motor maturity to practice the sounds they can say and attempt new sounds. So getting your toddler to talk is always good. Unfortunately, we as caretakers are enablers. And we are psychic! We fill in words or ask yes/no questions rather than make our kids work a little (After noticing the child reaching for the ball, we say, “did you want the ball?”). Acting dumb is often my first instruction for parents. Choice questions really work (“I don’t know what you want. Do you want the ball or the block?”).

Once your child is talking, you can hear the sounds they are producing correctly and in error. So how do you know if there is a problem? I use developmental norm charts (example) to guide the order of sounds I work on in therapy. If your child has reached the age of the end of the bar and is still making errors on the sound in words, it makes sense to look for a speech language pathologist’s (SLP) help.

When a child is not understood by other adults (other than parents) or children, that can create behavior problems and/or social problems that should be avoided. If a child shows any frustration around talking or being understood or tells you that talking is hard, it is time to seek help immediately. I find that children I have started to work with are often quite relieved to find out that there is someone to help them. They have no life experience and therefore think they are all alone to deal with a problem that they don’t know can improve. It is quite poignant to see their anxiety disappear as they work on improving their speech.

There is also a nice screening tool for parents that can help to identify whether a parent should seek help. Of course if you are unsure it’s best consult with a professional, if you at all suspect a problem.

Many people wonder how often a child should be seen for articulation therapy. It depends on the degree of the problem. If there are multiple sound errors, the child may be unintelligible to others. They should be seen or do home practice many times a week. Usually, they are seen once or twice a week through school or early intervention. But as a parent, I would make sure that a home program is advised by the SLP so there is daily practice. AN SLP can also advise apps for practice. I once heard that you need to speak a correct sound more than the number of times it has been produced in error in order to permanently change the motor plan and position of your tongue, lips, and mouth. And I’ve read that it takes 21 consecutive times to change any habit. This gives us a very good case for early intervention when a speech error is most likely not yet established.

So check the chart, do the screening, or have a professional check if you suspect a problem. Hoping it will go away is not a good option. Be informed, be proactive.

And don’t forget to enjoy your autumn weather with your children. Be sure to subscribe to Hilltown Families weekly eNewsletter for ideas to keep you and your families entertained throughout the fall!

(Photo credits: (cc) Thomas Hawk)


Kathy Puckett

Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at kathypuckett.com.

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