When will my toddler’s speech develop?

Q. My son is 3 1/2 years old and his speech is very difficult to understand. He seems to substitute some sounds for other sounds like “tat” for “cat.” He also leaves off sounds at the end of words like “duh” for “duck.” He has so many speech issues that I’m unsure of which to start helping him to correct. What could be causing this and what can I do about it?

A. It sounds like you are a very observant mama who is quite cognizant of your son’s speech patterns and errors. Based on your description, it appears that he may be having issues with phonological processes.

Phonological processes are normal and a natural part of speech development. They are typical patterns young children use to simplify speech as they learn to talk. Young children who cannot yet move their lips, tongue, and jaw to produce all of the sounds and sound patterns needed to formulate words correctly will often use these processes to say their words. However, as children develop their language skills they should outgrow these patterns. Types of phonological processes that should be eliminated by age 3 include: 

Final Consonant Deletion: The consonant at the end of the word is left off—for example, “bat” is pronounced “ba” and “dad” is pronounced “da.”

Velar Fronting: Sounds made in the back of the mouth (e.g. sounds like /k/ and /g/) are replaced with sounds made in the front of the mouth (e.g. sounds such as /t/ and /d/)—for example, “coat” is pronounced as “toat” and “got” is pronounced as “dot.”

Unstressed Syllable Deletion: The syllable that is not stressed is omitted—for example, “elephant” is pronounced as “elphant” or “telephone” is pronounced as “telphone.”

Syllable Reduplication: The first syllable is repeated twice—for example, “bottle” is pronounced as “baba.”

Consonant Assimilation: A consonant sound in the word influences another consonant sound—for example, “bed” is pronounced as “beb” or “tub” is pronounced as “tut.”

The speech patterns you’ve noticed your son implement are consistent with phonological processes known as velar fronting and final consonant deletion. Given his age and that pattern of processing errors, it would be wise for you to consult with his pediatrician about pursuing an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist. The evaluation will provide an assessment of his speech sound production skills and the impact they are having on his speech intelligibility. Following the evaluation, the speech-language pathologist will discuss any recommendations for treatment and give you strategies you may use at home to support his speech needs.

Addressing your son’s speech struggles now while he is young will help guide him to speaking success down the road.

Allison Crumpler is a speech-language pathologist and the director of clinical compliance for Raleigh Therapy Services, Inc., a multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice in North Raleigh. (919-791-3582)

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Nata-Lia

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