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Speech problems in children

17-minute read

Key facts

  • Speech and language skills are important for the development of your child's literacy and numeracy skills.
  • Stuttering is a speech disorder that stops the natural rhythm or flow of speech.
  • An articulation disorder is when a child has problems saying a particular sound or being understood when they speak.
  • If you have any concerns about your child's speech, see your doctor, paediatrician or a speech pathologist.

What is normal speech development?

There are speech 'milestones' that your child should reach at certain ages. These milestones are seen as a guide to normal speech development.

Typically, these skills must be reached at certain ages before more complex skills can be learned.

Speech and language skills are important as they help children be able to communicate, play with friends and learn. They're also important in learning to read and write (literacy).

Communication skills are also linked to social skills and building friendships. So, early detection and treatment of speech and literacy problems is important.

These broad rules of thumb apply to most children:

Understands Says
12 months
  • About 10 words
  • Responds to their name
  • Recognises "hi" and "bye"
  • Makes eye contact
  • Says a few words
  • Babbles
  • Copies different sounds and noises

18 months

  • About 50 words
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Points to familiar objects when named
  • Says 6 to 20 words
  • Copies words and noises
  • Can name a few body parts

2 years

  • Follows 2-part instructions
  • Responds to simple question — such as "what is…" or "where is…"
  • Understands when an object is in or on something
  • Says more than 50 words (by themselves, not copying)
  • Can put 2 words together
  • Uses "no"

3 years

  • Understands the concepts of 'same and 'different'
  • Can sort toys into groups
  • Recognises basic colours
  • Says 4 to 5 words in a sentence
  • Asks questions using 'what', 'where' and 'who'
  • Talks about something in the past

4 years

  • Answer most questions about daily tasks
  • Understand some numbers
  • Knows that some words start and finish with the same sound
  • Use joining sords such as 'and', 'but' and 'because'
  • Asks lots of questions
  • Uses personal pronouns (he/she, me/you)

5 years

  • Can follow 3-part instructions
  • Understands time related words — 'before', 'after', 'now', 'later'
  • Begins to recognise some letters, sounds and numbers
  • Uses sentences that are understood by most people
  • Takes turns in conversation
  • Uses most speech sounds

This may be a bit different for children who are :

  • from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds
  • learning English

If you have any concerns about your child's speech development it's best to talk with your doctor or a speech pathologist.

What causes speech disorders?

Speech and literacy problems are common in children. Nearly 1 in 5 Australian children aged 4 years have language and early literacy difficulties.

Most children have no reason for their speech disorder. However, in some children speech troubles can be a sign of:

Some speech disorders happen when a child has a physical problem (like a cleft palate). This makes it hard for the child to create the sounds of speech.

What are some types of speech problems in children?

Children can develop different speech problems, such as:

  • stuttering
  • articulation disorder
  • phonological disorder

Stuttering

Stuttering is a speech disorder that stops the natural rhythm or flow of speech. It can involve:

  • breaks in speech
  • stretching sounds and words
  • the repetition of sounds, syllables, words or phrases

The cause of stuttering isn't known, but it usually starts around 3 to 4 years of age. Stuttering may start gradually or appear quite suddenly.

It's quite common with about 1 in 100 people stuttering.

People who stutter can find it hard to communicate. It may make them more anxious about speaking, even if they have just a mild stutter.

Stuttering is unpredictable it may change how it sounds and when it happens. Stuttering in some children may go away on its own. In others it may not. It's not possible to work out who will get better on their own and who will need therapy for stuttering. So, it's best to talk with a speech pathologist as soon as you notice a stutter.

Early intervention for stuttering in young children is recommended. Stuttering can also be successfully controlled in older children.

Articulation disorder

A child with an articulation disorder has problems making or forming some sounds speech sounds properly.

Making sounds involves the coordination of the:

  • lips
  • tongue
  • teeth
  • palate (top of the mouth)
  • lungs

A child with an articulation disorder:

  • may have problems forming particular speech sounds properly — they may lisp, where 's' sounds like 'th'
  • may not be able to produce a particular sound — they say 'wabbit' instead of 'rabbit'

Phonological disorder

Phonology is the way sounds are put together to make words.

If your child has a phonological disorder, they:

  • can make the sounds correctly, but may use the sounds in the wrong place or in the wrong word — they may use the 'd' sound instead of the 'g' sound, and say 'doe' instead of 'go'
  • make mistakes with certain sounds in words —they can say 'k' in 'kite' but leave the sound out of 'like' and say 'lie'

Phonological disorders have been linked to ongoing problems with language and literacy. If your child has a phonological disorder, it's important they have treatment.

Functional speech sounds disorders

It can be difficult to tell the difference between articulation and phonological disorders. Many people now use the broader term "speech sound disorder" to cover both articulation and phonological disorders.

When should you seek advice?

If you have any concerns about your child's speech, see your doctor or paediatrician. They will arrange an assessment with a speech pathologist. Speech pathologists are trained to help people who have difficulties communicating.

Your doctor, paediatrician or child health nurse can help find the most appropriate speech pathologist for your child.

You can also arrange to see a speech pathologist directly; however, the cost may be higher.

How are speech problems diagnosed?

The speech pathologist will work out which treatments and services are right for your child.

You don't need a referral to see a speech pathologist. However, a referral may let you get some Medicare funding to help with the cost of the speech pathologist.

How are speech problems managed?

How your child's speech problem is managed will depend on what they are having trouble with. Speech pathologists can help with:

  • talking
  • understanding others
  • reading
  • spelling
  • using technology to communicate

What can I do to help?

You can help support your child's speech and language development by:

  • reading to your child regularly — read different stories and comment on the pictures
  • playing with your child — talk about what you are doing and what they are seeing or hearing

Resources and support

Speech Pathology Australia has produced a Communication Milestones Kit. The kit aims to help parents and carers who are concerned about their child's speech, language and communication. You can also call them on 1300 368 835.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2023


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