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One of the joys of raising a child is watching your little one develop the ability to communicate. In most children, language acquisition appears almost effortless -- while their speech skills certainly don't start out perfect, they progress from their first word to being able to hold conversations with ease. But some children do have difficulties learning to speak. Here's how to tell the difference between normal development and speech difficulties -- and what to do if you suspect your child needs help.
What is normal?
Normal speech development follows a series of stages, from infant babbling -- a means for babies to practise making sounds with their speech organs -- to finally learning all of the sounds of the mother tongue by the early school years. According to Elizabeth Baron, speech-language pathologist at CommunicAid Speech and Language Services in Vancouver, English-speaking children should have acquired proper pronunciation of all English speech sounds by age six, although some of the more difficult sounds may not be properly learned until age eight. These more difficult sounds include the "th" sound in words such as "these" and "thick," "s," "z," "r" and "l." Consonant clusters such as "bl," "tr" and "skw" (as in "squeeze") also tend to emerge later. Different children will have difficulties with different sounds.
All children will have difficulties pronouncing certain sounds as they develop their language skills. Most of the time, this is a normal part of linguistic development. Learning to speak is a motor skill, and it takes time -- just as children have to learn how to catch a ball, they have to learn how to move their tongue and lips to make different sounds. (Want more info on child language development? Find out how toddlers learn to speak.)
Assessing your child
It's not always easy to judge whether your child's skills fall within the normal range -- parents are around their children a lot and will learn to understand what they say, even if they are making errors. So the best way to evaluate your child's abilities, says Baron, is to determine how easily other people understand him or her. "A less-familiar listener," Baron says, "should be able to understand most of what your child says -- about 88 per cent -- by age three."
Another way to analyze your child's speech is to pay careful attention to what they're saying while they are playing happily -- their speech will be hastier and less clear if they are angry or upset. "Engage your child in some imaginative play and see what you are hearing," says Baron. "Often parents notice certain patterns or sounds that are more consistently used in place of correct sounds, and that is helpful information." She also recommends using books as a way to set up conversations with your child that have a controlled topic. For instance, if you are worried about your child's pronunciation of a certain sound, choose a story to read together that contains many instances of that sound. "If you were concerned about a child's ability to produce a 'g' sound," says Baron, "you could read Goodnight Moon together, where there are many opportunites to produce the 'g' sound."
Looking for more hints on communicating witih your young child? Read Understanding toddler speak.
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What if I think my child has a problem?
If you suspect that your child has problems with pronunciation, you can consult a speech-language pathologist. They are trained to determine whether errors are age-appropriate or if intervention is necessary. A speech pathologist will "assess and analyze speech patterns to understand what a child is doing correctly and what they are challenged by," says Baron. "They will also assess the error patterns in your child's production. From here they will investigate your child's ability to produce the sound correctly and develop a treatment program based on this."
Treatment, says Baron, can include such strategies as giving a child specific instructions on how to shape their mouth to produce a certain sound, having the child watch the therapist's mouth to learn how to make the sound, and repeating the sound alone, in words and, eventually, in sentences.
Finding a speech-language pathologist
One easy way to find a speech pathologist is online, at the website of the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists. They have a searchable registry of professionals across the country. You can also ask your doctor or child's school for recommendations and advice on whether there are any publicly funded speech pathologists in your area who could assess your child.
It's important to find a professional you're happy working with. "Parents should feel comfortable interviewing the speech pathologist," says Baron, "asking questions and determining their comfort level with the professional. Pertinent questions may include if the therapist works with articulation difficulties in children in their practice, how long they have been practising, and what their experience is."
If your child does have speech difficulties, it's best to bring them to a professional as early as possible so that they can learn to communicate with greater ease and be confident speaking to a wide variety of people, ideally before they start school.
How to help your child develop good pronunciation
Baron offers some dos and don'ts when focusing on your child's language skills.
• Model correct pronunciation of sounds in your own speech.
• Repeat productions of inaccurate sounds correctly and, if the child is interested, encourage them to try and mimic the way you say it.
• Encourage your child to watch your mouth when you say the sound if they are interested in attempting to make it correctly.
• Praise your child when they produce a challenging sound correctly and intelligibly.
• Insist on endless repetitions of sounds and/or words if it is challenging or frustrating for the child.
• Encourage or model "baby talk" (e.g., "wabbit" for "rabbit").
• Punish your child for saying things inaccurately.
• Make a big deal out of incorrect pronunciation, unless it is bothering them.
Looking for more ways to fuel your child's love of language? Read about 10 ways to help your child fall in love with books.
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