something to talk about

by gurumommy on April 11, 2010

in from the desk of

A big gurumommy welcome back to Julia Hobbs & her column, ‘something to talk about’.  Today she answers the question:  ‘Our 3 ½ yr old girl mispronounces words and is difficult to understand some of the time. We have heard some sounds do not come in until the children are older. We also wonder if she is just lazy since sometimes she seems clearer than other times’.  Julia answers:  Children love to talk and express themselves! After all, this is how they express their identity and let the world know who they are. “LAZY” is not a term which can appropriately be applied to speech acquisition. One cannot keep children from talking and they give you their best at any given time. Now, they may whine and sound sloppy when they are tired, but that is completely different from speech sound errors. So, let’s all drop the “LAZY” concept when it comes to speech in children.

We do know children follow a rather typical timetable and predictable pattern in acquiring speech sounds. Rather than worrying too much about which individual sounds or letters are in error, think about “speech intelligibility”……in other words, how understandable is the child? Typically a 3 to 3 ½ year old child should be approximately 90% intelligible to strangers. (in other words, non-family members) The clarity will indeed seem to fluctuate, based on the complexity of the words and sentences being used by the child. For children with poor speech intelligibility, a speech evaluation is strongly recommended. That is the only way parents can obtain professional information regarding their child.

Parents often want to wait and see if the child “will outgrow the problem.” Many children will indeed outgrow speech errors; however, the speech intelligibility rule of thumb described in the previous paragraph should be carefully considered. While we may want to minimize the possible effects of not speaking clearly, if you are the child who is struggling to be understood, it is not an insignificant issue. Children will often substitute words or avoid words when they know there is a chance they will be misunderstood. The last thing we want is for a child to become self-conscious or frustrated regarding communication. Child development is truly like a flower, unfolding petal by petal with every phase of development. We want that process to be as natural as possible with the least amount of intrusion. Children should not have to worry about whether or not they will be understood. That is too much to ask. At 3 ½ they are learning so much and experimenting with words and ideas and we want that process to be as exciting and natural as it should.

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