FAQ: Should my ___-year-old be able to say ___?
The short answer is that different sets of guidelines exist that specify the age at which a child should be able to independently use each speech sound in connected speech. For a quick rule of thumb, here are the ages of acquisition for English speech sounds, collected and averaged by McLeod and Crowe (2018) and Bowen (2011) in their recent reviews of literature regarding ages of acquisition. Additionally, you will find expected intelligibility, which is the percentage that a listener can readily understand.
However, the long answer is that speech production age of acquisition is actually not that black and white! There are so many additional variables that should be taken into consideration when deciding whether a child would benefit from speech therapy for articulation difficulties, that a simple “cut-off” age for acquisition of sounds may also disqualify a child who could benefit from earlier intervention. Relying on simple, arbitrary acquisition norms from any one literature study as our threshold for intervention can be a disservice to children.
Some of the other variables a speech-language pathologist might consider when determining a child’s need for speech therapy intervention may include:
- Severity: If there are multiple errors present or if errors are very severe in nature, even if the errors are “developmentally appropriate” according to age norms, treatment may be beneficial. Waiting to treat severe or multiple errors can significantly reduce intelligibility and make the errors more difficult to treat down the line!
- Phonological Processes: If a child uses a phonological process, it simply means that despite being able to produce all “age-appropriate” sounds according to developmental norms, they are using an error pattern that is consistent throughout their speech. This is a difficulty rooted in phonology, rather than functional ability to produce a sound, and will often be treated earlier. For example, the phonological process of Fronting occurs when a child who is able to produce the “g” sound always produces it in the front of the mouth as a “d,” instead of in the back of the mouth where it should be. He or she might say, “Do dod, do!” instead of, “Go dog, go!” even though they can say “g” if asked to.
- Phonology: Along with phonological processes, difficulties with phonology are an important factor when determining if a child will benefit from speech therapy. Children with speech sound disorders have a higher risk for literacy-related difficulties, especially in areas tied to phonology such as phonological awareness, decoding, and spelling down the road. For example, a child may have difficulty with phonology if they cannot distinguish the difference between “f” and “s.”
- Overall Intelligibility: Intelligibility is one of the core purposes of speech therapy intervention. It refers to the percentage of a child’s speech that can be understood by either a familiar parent/sibling/caregiver, or a stranger who is unfamiliar with that child’s manner of speech. For example, if by 3 years old, a child is not at least 75% intelligible to an unfamiliar listener or peer, it is time to implement therapy to address speech production.
- Structural or Functional Deficits: This might look like a severe tongue tie, tongue thrust, Velopharyngeal Incompetence, or other oral motor difficulties. When a physical or functional difficulty is present, it is most often beneficial to get an early jumpstart on speech production, because it is unlikely that speech production errors will be remediated on their own if there is a structural or functional problem.
- Family History: Does the child’s older sibling have a speech disorder? Did his or her parents receive speech therapy as a child? Evidence exists linking genetic factors to a variety of speech and language difficulties, including articulation disorders!
- Stimulability and Maturity: If a child has a level of self-awareness and the ability to follow directions and participate in therapeutic activities, it can be beneficial to begin remediation of severe speech production difficulties earlier than indicated by developmental norms.
Social and Emotional Factors: Is your child aware, frustrated, or self-conscious about how their speech sounds? Do other children notice their speech difficulties? If so, don’t wait to seek treatment. The social and emotional impact of a self-conscious child can affect participation in school, in the community, and even at home.
If you think your child may benefit from speech therapy, please do not hesitate to schedule a free consultation or speech screening with us to determine if your child needs an evaluation!
McLeod, S. & Crowe, K. (2018). Children’s consonant acquisition in 27 languages: A cross-linguistic review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. doi:10.1044/2018_AJSLP-17-0100. Available from: https://ajslp.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=2701897
Bowen, C. (2011). Table1: Intelligibility. Retrieved from http://www.speech-language-therapy.com/ on [9/8/2020].