3 expert tips for improving your tot’s speech clarity

It can take until second grade for a child to acquire fluent speech that is free of articulation errors. Before this time, certain kinds of errors can make a young child less understandable.

As a speech-language pathologist, one of my goals is to offer ideas for improving your toddler’s speech clarity—and for helping you to understand your child with a little more ease.

After all, understanding your toddler’s thought-process can be difficult enough without taking articulation into account!

Here are 3 common articulation errors and accompanying suggestions for improving your tot’s clarity.

1. Leaving off the last sound of a word.

This is quite common in younger children, which is why not everything an 18-month-old says is understood.

For example, “bae” could mean “bath” or “bad” or“bag.” The only way we know which one a child is referring to is by using context clues.

By age 2, kids should be able to put consonants onto the ends of words, with few exceptions.

To encourage your child to do this, try practicing with words that end in /m/, /p/, /t/ or /k/ sounds.

Use words like game,mom (not mama), up, cup, hat, sock,or duck. Exaggerate these consonants when you say them and model for your child that you want him to make the same exaggerations.

2. Substituting consonants at the beginning of words.

Another common error pattern is something called initial voicing. For instance, a child might say “dape” for tape, “big” instead of pig, or “gat” instead of cat.

Take a quick moment to think about what your mouth is doing when you say /d/ vs. /t/, /b/ vs. /p/ and /g/ vs. /k/. You may notice that your mouth is actually doing the same exact thing for both sounds!

The only difference lies in the throat. For /d/, /b/and /g/, but not for /t/, /p/ and /k/, your vocal cords are vibrating. If you put your finger on your throat, you can feel this vocal cord vibration as a buzzing sensation.

What children have trouble with is going from anon-buzzing sound to a buzzing sound; they prefer to keep it all buzzing.

One way to get your child to say these sounds correctly is to whisper. When you whisper, you don’t buzz your vocal cords.

Have your child whisper a handful of words that begin with any of these sounds that he cannot currently say. This has the effect of showing your child that he can indeed make the sound.

The next challenge is to put this skill into actual words.

In English, the /t/, /p/ and /k/ sounds have a nice,strong burst of air when they’re said at the beginning of a word. So, in order to get kids to have that initial learning breakthrough, we want to emphasize this burst of air.

Try to use external cues to show kids what to do.  

For example, use a single piece of tissue paper and hold it about three inches in front of your child’s face. Now have your child say tape, pig, or cat. If he says the /t/, /p/ or /k/ sound correctly, the tissue paper will get flipped up. If he says it incorrectly, the tissue paper will stay put.

3. “Stopping” air flow when it shouldn’t be stopped.

Another sound pattern that is a serious culprit in reducing your child’s clarity is something called “stopping.”

Some sounds necessarily and momentarily stop airflow to make the sound correctly.

Try saying the word eating. When you say that first vowel (“ee”), in order to say the /t/ sound, you have to place your tongue where the upper front teeth and gums meet and stop the flow of air. That’s because the /t/ sound requires that you stop the air flow.

Now try to say easing. The air doesn’t stop flowing. Many children will stop the air flow where the air should actually keep flowing.

Any sound that requires continuous air flow can become subject to stopping.

So, you might hear your child say he’s not four years old, but “tor” or “door”.

To improve your child’s pronunciation, try something called minimal pairs. Think of two rhyming words that only differ in the sound you want your child to say correctly and another sound.

If your child cannot say the /f/ sound, good minimal pairs might be fin-tin, fake-take, or Jeff-jet. Practice saying these words with your child, emphasizing the differences between sounds.

This can allow your child to perceive the difference between what he is saying and what he should be saying.

Although these three speech patterns are very common among toddlers, they should phase out by 2½ years.

If these patterns are still present as your child approaches 2 ½ years, it may mean that your child’s speech is in need of attention from a speech pathologist.

However, the above tricks are an excellent place to start. In some cases, your child may just need a little help from you to notice and address these patterns.

When in doubt, consult your pediatrician or a qualified speech pathologist.

Gordy Rogers, M.S. CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist. He is the founder of Speech Buddies, a company connecting families to the best speech therapists and providing speech-language tools to promote language development, and Speech Buddies Connect, the first online Marketplace for parents to find local speech professionals.

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