"Help! When should I consult a speech pathologist for my child’s speech?!”

“When should I consult a speech pathologist for my child’s speech?!”

It can be difficult to know when to ask for help with your child’s developing speech sounds, particularly when some speech sound errors are typical up to a certain age. Parents have a lot on their plates and while I find most parents’ intuition on when to seek help for their child’s speech development is usually spot on, some reassurance or guidance may ease the stress for some.

Knowing how much of your child’s speech others should be able to understand is a good starting point when trying to determine if their speech is developing typically or not. The speechie term for “the proportion of speaker’s output that others can readily understand” is “intelligibility”. Check out this graphic for a rough guideline on how intelligible your child should be by what age.

When I meet a family who has questions about their child’s use of speech sounds, some of the first questions I ask are “how much are you able to understand” and “how much are others able to understand”. I usually get parents to rate it in percentage or even talk about it in terms of “more than half” or “less than half”. Even though this measurement isn’t overly precise, it does give me an idea on how well this child is understood by others and therefore how well they are using their speech sounds to communicate.

Tl;dr: If your child is difficult to understand, check out the graphic and see if they are falling within intelligibility guidelines.

Now, if we look at speech sound development more specifically, there is a developmental pattern in the way children acquire their sounds. This isn’t information that any SLP will expect a parent to know, but let’s take a closer look in case any of you are super keen in learning more about the details of it all.

McLeod and Crowe (2018) studied children’s consonant (i.e., speech sound) acquisition in 27 different languages. This is a really important study in the field of speech language pathology because it clarifies and informs our clinical expectations of children’s developmental capacity for speech sound acquisition. An important takeaway from this study is that “most of the world’s consonants were acquired by 5;0 years;months” (i.e., 5 years old). That means that we can expect “5 year old children to have acquired most consonants within their ambient language”, while keeping in mind some individual variability.

Below you will see a graphic that outlines the average age children learn to pronounce English consonants correctly. Keep in mind that an average is what 50% of children are able to do at a certain age while a milestone is what 90% of children are able to do at a certain age.

As you can see in the graphic, we can expect children to have mastered most sounds by age 4 and all sounds by age 5-6. Children with typically developing speech will acquire certain sounds first, shown at the bottom of the ladder, then can be expected to follow a predictable trajectory when acquiring the rest of their sounds. This graphic may be useful to refer to if you’re wondering if your child’s speech development is typical or not. For example, a parent may be saying to themselves “Tommy doesn’t say his K sound yet and he’s almost 4… is that normal?!”. They can look at this chart and quickly realize that that sound is typically acquired around age 2-3. Alternatively, I also sometimes get parents that say “He doesn’t quite say his R’s right” and when I ask how old the child is, they tell me he’s 3.5. According to McLeod and Crowe’s (2018) research, we would be able to easily see that R is not a sound that is expected to be mastered until about 5 years old.

" There is a predictable pattern in speech sound acquisition and we know averages on when these sounds should be acquired. This information can help inform our clinical decisions.

I hope this information was helpful and provided some useful resources for you to reference if you ever have questions about your child’s speech sound development. Keep in mind that speech sound development is just ONE aspect of communication that SLPs can help with and that age of acquisition and intelligibility are just parts of a whole when it comes to speech assessments.

So, at the end of it all, the answer to the question that is the title of this blog is: IF your child is not meeting speech averages or milestones, consult a SLP. IF your child's speech is hard to understand and they are not falling within intelligibility guidelines, consult a SLP. But most importantly, IF you have ANY questions or concerns about your child’s speech and language development, then, you guessed it... consult a SLP! We're here to help!

McLeod, S. & Crowe, K. (2018). Children's consonant acquisition in 27 languages: A cross-linguistic review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 27(4), 1546-1571. https://doi.org/10.1044/2018_AJSLP-17-0100

Last updated September 24, 2021