An introduction to speech sounds
Speech sounds refer to the sounds that we produce when saying a word. If we use the right sounds in the right order then people can understand what we are saying.
Children develop their speech sounds as they are learning to talk and so their sound system develops gradually.
Children begin by learning easier sounds and as they grow older they will learn more complex sounds.
All children make mistakes; some mistakes are expected for children of a certain age. See the when children learn sounds tab.
Children begin to learn how to make speech sounds through early babble and playing with sounds, see the play sounds tab.
Children learn to say sounds by listening to the people and the environment around them.
Before a child can make different speech sounds, they need to be able to hear the different speech sounds. For example, if your child does not hear the difference between the sounds ‘p’ and ‘b’, they will not hear a difference between the words ‘pig’ and ‘big’.
Check the ideas to help develop active listening skills tab. Developing listening skills helps with the development of speech sounds. Your child has to tune in more closely to what you’re saying. This will build awareness of the sounds that make up words.
Listening is an important skill for the development of speech and communication skills. It is therefore important that you get your child’s hearing checked as soon as possible if you have concerns about this
Here are some signs that may suggest a child might isn’t hearing well:
- they do not react to environmental sounds such as loud noises
- they do not respond when you call their name
- they have had persistent ear discomfort (may rub, pull or scratch their ears)
- frequent colds.
Thinking a referral might be needed
Early years, primary and secondary
In typical development, children’s speech sound systems will usually be established by the age of six. However, all children are unique and sometimes speech development will vary. The ability to make speech sounds may also be affected by physical factors such as a cleft palate. If you have concerns about your child’s speech development please refer to the when children learn sounds tab. Contact our Therapy One Point if you need to discuss your child’s speech with us.
All primary schools in East Sussex subscribe to Speech Link®. This is an award-winning company, set up by speech and language therapists. It is an online package for teaching staff. Teaching staff can screen children’s speech sounds and access speech activity programmes and resources that are personalised to their students. If a child is not making progress with a targeted programme after at least one term’s work then schools should seek further guidance from our therapists through our Therapy One Point on 0300 123 2650.
For further information on Speech Link®.
Occasionally older students may still need support with developing clear speech sounds. Please contact our Therapy One Point phone line 0300 123 2650 for a discussion with a therapist.
How you can help
Top tips on how the environment and the adults support a child with a speech sound difficulty can help are explained below.
Provide lots of opportunities to model sounds to your child through reading, shared play and games.
When working on specific sounds or a speech therapy programme, it is important to model sounds on their own and not as their letter name for instance ‘buh’ not ‘bee’, ‘tuh’ not ‘tea’, ‘puh’ not ‘pea’. Before your child can put sounds into words they have to learn how to make them on their own.
Play games where you and your child listen to the difference between two contrasting sounds as suggested by your speech and language therapist, for example ‘p’ versus ‘b’.
Make learning speech sounds fun! There are many creative ways you can incorporate speech sound activities into a the day. Please call our Therapy One Point phone line 0300 123 2650 for ideas and suggestions or see the Speechlink® Parent Portal.
This site gives lots of good ideas on how you can begin to support your child at home. If your child goes to school, talk with their teacher too as it’s best to work together.
If your school or your speech and language therapist has identified a specific speech sound to work on then this video shows how you can work on this with your child:
- keep activities short, fun and motivating
- have a clear target such as: Today I will work on my ‘k’ sound for five minutes
- use a reward/sticker chart to keep your child motivated
- work on one sound per session
- lots of positive encouragement – don’t dwell on an error
- have fun.
For early years primary professionals
If you notice difficulties with a child’s speech, firstly talk it over with their parents. Children may present differently in school or nursery. Please refer to the When children learn sounds leaflet (see the when children learn sounds tab).
If a child is at school then a Speech Link® screen will show which sounds they are having difficulty. The Speech Link® website also provides targeted programmes that teaching staff can carry out at school. These programmes also have parent materials and resources so it’s really easy to get parents involved too.
If you need support to deliver these programmes you can either contact the Speech Link help desk on 0333 577 0784 or our Therapy One Point 0300 123 2650 to speak to a speech and language therapist.
For secondary parents/professionals
It is important that a young person develops awareness of their own speech skills and learns how to use different strategies to enhance the clarity of their speech. This information sheet includes some useful ideas (see the intelligibility strategies tab).
Helping a child with a speech difficulty
Presume your child is talking as clearly as they can. If someone else doesn’t understand your child and you do, tell the other person what they are saying. Let your child sort it out for themselves if possible.
He or she might:
- say it again, the same
- say it louder
- demonstrate what they were saying by pointing, using signs, gestures or acting
- ask someone else to interpret
It doesn’t matter which strategies they use. It matters that they get the message across successfully.
If you still can’t understand, tell your child. Ask them to show you or ask others in the group.
If you understand but your child hasn’t used the right sounds then repeat the words back correctly e.g. “I want the tar”, “Here’s the car, it’s a very fast car”.
Sometimes your child may say a sound right in one word but wrong in another word such as “car” is right but “cat” is not. This is very common and to be expected. Even as adults we allow ourselves to say some words without making every sound accurately such as “hambag” instead or “handbag”. It’s helpful to point out when your child gets the sound right: “you said car with a lovely ‘k’ sound” and then later link that word to the one that’s harder: “cat begins with a ‘k’ sound just like car”.
Ideas to help develop active listening skills
Below are ideas to develop active listening skills, which will help with developing speech sounds. These activities mean your child has to tune in more closely to what you’re saying or doing. This will help build up awareness of the sounds that make up words.
Get some musical instruments or any noise makers such as a bell, a rattle, a party blower. Play the noise makers until your child is familiar with the sound of each of them. Then ask them to close their eyes while you use one of them to make a noise. They have to find which one you used. If they can recognise one sound easily then try two at a time.
Enjoy books which have rhyming sentences together. These help to make your child aware of rhyming and the sounds that make up words. This is a vital skill for learning to produce sounds. The Cat in the Hat is a good book to start with. Try leaving off the last word to encourage your child to fill it in for you, or ask them to think of other words that rhyme with the words in the book.
Read a repetitive story or sing nursery rhymes and deliberately get the words wrong. See if your child can point out what was wrong. You can prompt them beforehand that you might make some mistakes, to encourage them to really listen. For example, you could sing, “incey wincey butterfly”, “baa baa black cow”, or “row, row, row your car”. You can then move on to harder tasks like changing a line in a favourite book.
When you’re out and about, talk about what you can hear. Ask your child to tell you what they can hear. Prompt them to listen for cars, birds, animals and people. It can be tricky to pick quieter sounds out of a mix of noises, and this activity will help them to start focusing their listening.
Read books that have lots of repetition such as the Dr Seuss books, Hairy Maclary, or We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Encourage your child to fill in some of the repeated phrases. Ask them to do an action when they hear a phrase. For example, ducking down every time they hear “you can’t go under it”.
Sing “If you’re happy and you know it”. Instead of ‘happy’, use people’s names, such as "If you’re Jack and you know it clap your hands, if you’re Tino and you know it rub your tummy, if you’re Josie and you know it and you really want to show it, if you’re Josie and you know it stamp your feet.”
Rhythm activities are great for encouraging listening. See if your child can copy a simple rhythm on a drum, or clap along with a rhythm. Try syllable clapping: Clapping out syllables in a word as you say them, for example but-ter-fly would be three claps.
Play ‘I-spy’, but make sure you use sounds rather than letter names, so “something beginning with ssss” or “something beginning with kuh”.
See if your child can sort pictures according to the sound that they begin with. For example, you could have pictures of things beginning with ‘s’, ‘g’, and ‘b’ and see if they can sort them into piles.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand what people say, and there may be lots of reasons for this:
- background noise
- hearing problems
- not knowing what the topic of conversation is
- if the person talking has difficulties with their speech sounds
- they’re using words that you haven’t heard before.
Can you think of things that help you to understand other people when they’re talking? Maybe things like:
- the person slowing down their talking
- using pictures, objects, or symbols to support what they’re saying
- writing things down
- making gestures alongside their talking.
Have you ever found that people don’t understand you when you’re talking to them? That could be for any of those reasons in the first list, and you could use any of the things in the second list to help them understand what you’re saying.
Here are some ideas in a bit more detail that you can use to help people understand you.
Remember there are lots of ways to get a message across. You can use pictures to show someone who or what you’re talking about. This can be really helpful if you’re saying a new word such as someone’s name or the name of something you’ve learned in science. You can also try writing things down to help people understand a new word that you’re saying.
Say it again! Sometimes you only have to say something once more, and people will understand you much more easily.
Say it a different way. Use different words to describe what you’re saying, or give a clue about it. For example if you were saying the word ‘corgi’, you could also say, “it’s a kind of dog, it’s small, and the Queen has them.”
Make sure the person you’re talking to can see your face. We get lots of information from the expressions you make with your face.
Slow down! It’s much harder for people to understand you if you talk very quickly. Try to keep it slow and steady when you’re talking. This can be a really hard one to do – ask your parents if they can practise talking slowly with you as well. It’s easier to talk slowly when other people are talking slowly as well.
Use gestures when you’re talking, like pointing to what you’re talking about, or making an action. This is particularly helpful when there’s lots of noise in the background. Adults do this all the time and it really works.
Play sounds are a fun way to encourage your child to use sounds when interacting with you.
We use a wide variety of sounds when we talk. Play sounds are fun to make and easier to remember and, one day, to copy. Play sounds also create opportunities for back and forth interaction.
Play sounds also build association between the sounds we make and things around us such as neenor refers to an emergency vehicle, dogs say woof woof. It is important to use these sounds in context as this will give them meaning.
Try the following suggestions:
- boo! when playing peek-a-boo
- ahhhhhh when you hug teddy
- uh oh if you drop something or knock over blocks
- weeeeee, or ooooooo as you play
- didom-didom-didom going up the stairs
- mmmmm sounds when feeding teddy/dolly
- neenor and brmm sounds with cars
- animal sounds, such as woof, mioaw, buzz, moo
- open and close your mouth making fish sounds
- shhhh sounds
- blow raspberries
- kerash when stacking beakers and they fall.
Be face-to-face with your child when making these play sounds and repeat them over and over. Praise any attempts your child makes to copy you.
When children learn sounds
Most children learn speech sounds in the same order, but some are quicker than others.
This is a rough guide as to what you can expect.
|From birth to 18 months||Many words will sound very different from how we would say them, but so long as it’s a word the sounds don’t really matter at this age. Beginnings and ends of words will often be left off (“te” for teddy, “du” for duck). Often only parents know what the child is saying.||
|Up to about two and a half years||Some ends of words are still missing, but many are now being used. Often the last sound of the word is made the same as the first, so that “dog” may be “dod” or “gog”.||
w sometimes ‘f’
|Up to about three years||Often children are still using t and d for c and g, so that car becomes “tar”, and go will be “doe”. Some children still use a hard sound for a soft one, so sea is “dea”, f may be “b” so that farm is “barm”, and van is “ban”.||
p b t d
w usually ‘f’,
|Up to about three and a half years||
Now beginning to use c and g as well as f and y. Where two sounds are together, one of them may be left off, so spoon is “poon”, but s may be used in “house” or “sit down”.
Lisps – This is when a sound is made by placing the tongue in between the teeth such as ‘s’ becomes ‘th’. This is within normal development and may not resolve until the child is five or six years old.
n m w
f v s
|Up to about four years||By now the c and g should be fine, as well as the f. Some children will still miss off s in words like spider and stamp. The l, r, y, may be left off as in “pate” for plate or mixed up as in “yion” for lion. Also ch, j, sh, and th may be difficult.||
p b t d n m w c/k g f v s z sometimes
‘l’ & ‘r’
|Up to about five years||Most sounds will be correct by now, except for r, l and th. Children may still mix up or leave sounds out of longer words, so that hospital is “hopital” or spaghetti is “sgetti”.||
p b t d n m w c/k g f v s z l r y
usually sh ch j
Up to about six years
|Many children still have trouble with th and r.||Most sounds now correct|
|After six years||Most children have all their speech sounds correct by now.||All sounds now usually correct|
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