Why Is My Child Difficult to Understand?

What causes speech errors and how to help

Children may be difficult to understand due to articulation and phonological disorders which will require help from a speech-language pathologist.

What Causes a Speech Problem?

Most of what a speech-language pathologist does is commonly called “speech therapy,” but there is a difference between therapy that targets speech production difficulties and other aspects of communication (like understanding and producing language, fluent speech production, voicing problems, etc.). Here we will focus on producing speech and why it can be sometimes difficult to understand kids’ speech.

Two Main Causes of Speech Difficulties

There are two main reasons for difficulty in producing clear speech: articulation problems and phonological problems: 

  1. Articulation problems arise because of difficulty making the muscles in the mouth and tongue move to the right place with the correct positioning to produce the correct sound. A lisp is one example of this: the ‘s’ sound should have the tongue behind the teeth but when it’s produced with a lisp the tongue moves too far forward into the space between or slightly in front of the teeth. See more information on what causes a lisp. Articulation errors can be seen when kids substitute a different sound for the correct one, omit or delete the correct sound entirely, distort the sound so it sounds not quite right, or add in an extra incorrect sound. 
  2. Phonological problems arise because of an incorrect rule that the child’s brain is applying to their speech. This one is more difficult to understand so we will walk through it with some examples. Our brains store and apply a bunch of rules when it comes to language such as “Add -ed to the end of a word to make it past tense.” Sometimes these rules are something we are consciously aware of and sometimes they are not. The same thing applies to producing the sounds that are found in words. In English, we have some rules for what is and is not allowed. For example, English does not allow “ts” at the beginning of a word but does allow those sounds at the end of a word (“cats”). However, that is an arbitrary rule specific to the English language, not because humans cannot produce these sounds at the beginning of the word. In fact, “tsunami” is a real Japanese word that begins with these sounds. 

Phonological problems arise when a child has rules that do not match standard English (also called “phonological processes”). For example, a child may have an (unconscious) rule that says: “Do not produce more than one consonant sound next to each other.” In English, we can produce two and sometimes three consonant sounds next to each other (within certain constraints). For example, “stop” has the two consonants ‘s’ and ‘t’ next to each other. If the child is applying the rule above: “Do not produce more than one consonant sound next to each other” then “stop” would be produced as “sop” or “top.” When one (or more) of those sounds are missing, it can make the speech harder to understand, although familiarity with the speaker can help you understand speech that has errors.

A speech-language pathologist (SLP) has the qualifications and education necessary to help those with phonological deficits. This is because many people who seek speech therapy, not only those with dyslexia, have lacking phonological skills. As such, imparting these skills is vital for an effective SLP.

People often ignore SLPs when treating dyslexia since the phonological deficit does not typically impact speech. However, teaching students exercises that will improve their overall phonological skills will have a direct impact on dyslexia. Furthermore, many people with dyslexia have language learning problems, which a speech therapist can also help resolve.

Examples of Phonological Processes

There are several different rules or processes that children sometimes apply to their speech. I will mention a few common ones here.

  • Reduplication: When a child takes part of a word (like a syllable) and repeats it: “ta-ta” for “tractor” or “ba-ba” for “bottle.” This is a common one for young children. 
  • Final consonant deletion: When a child does not say the last consonant in the word such as “fi” for “fish.”
  • Fronting: When a child takes a sound that is produced in the back of the mouth (like the ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds) and substitutes a sound that’s produced closer to the front of the mouth (like the ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds). So a child who is fronting might say “tar” instead of “car” or “bud” instead of “bug.” This is also very common in the speech of young children. 
  • Stopping: When a child stops the airflow instead of letting the air flow continuously through their mouth. The following sounds are considered “stop” sounds: p, b, t, d, k, g. Stopping occurs when a child takes a sound like the ‘s’ sound that should have continuous airflow and produces a “stop” sound instead (such as “soap” becoming “toap”).

How Do I Tell the Difference Between a Phonological Process Error and an Articulation Speech Error?

Phonological process errors will typically affect more than one speech sound and will show a pattern. For example, a child may stop the airflow on all fricative sounds. Fricative sounds use the mouth, teeth, and tongue to constrict but not stop the airflow, making it sound hissy or turbulent. ‘S’ and ‘f’ are examples of fricative sounds. The phonological process of stopping may be seen when a child takes the following sounds: “f v s z j th” and replaces them with a corresponding “stop” sound (e.g., “p b t d” sounds). See the picture for specifics. A sentence might then sound like the following: “I like to dump op duh twingd” (“I like to jump off the swings”). 

examples of the phonological process of stopping

When there are a lot of sounds involved, the message is harder to understand. This is in contrast with a child who just produces one or two sounds incorrectly due to an articulation difficulty: “I wike it” (“I like it”) or “One of my favorite fings” (“One of my favorite things”). Kids often use multiple articulation errors: “I wike to eat wemon swices” (“I like to eat lemon slices”). Even with multiple articulation errors, there tend to be fewer errors with an articulation difficulty than with phonological difficulty, resulting in more understandable speech.

When is A Phonological Process Error a Problem?

Many children display phonological process patterns during typical development. These errors become a phonological disorder when the patterns persist beyond the age range seen in typical development. For example, “stopping” discussed above should be mostly eliminated by approximately 3.5 – 4.5 years of age. If this pattern persists beyond that age range, we would consider it a phonological disorder. Learn more on Little Bee Speech’s website where they have detailed information on the ages by which each process is typically eliminated. 

With a phonological problem, the child will need to learn to correct the incorrect rule they hold in their brain rather than learning the motor pattern involved in producing the correct speech sound (involved in 

articulation problems).

When is an Articulation Error Considered a Problem?

All children have articulation errors as they learn to talk – they do not have all the speech sounds just right when they begin speaking as a baby. There are age ranges for typical development of each speech sound. For example, kids acquire the ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds anywhere from two to four years of age but the ‘th’ sound is not expected to be correct until five to six years old. Articulation errors would be considered a problem when they persist beyond these age ranges for typical development.

What Can I Do to Help My Child With Their Speech?

Many children have articulation errors or phonological patterns that make their speech difficult to understand. You can model for them the correct sound. You can ask them if they meant to say the incorrect sound: “Did you mean ‘sop’ or ‘stop’”? If you have concerns about your child’s speech, a speech-language pathologist can help make a plan for making their speech more understandable, for both phonological and articulation errors. 

Written by Dr. Kristen Secora

Written by Dr. Kristen Secora

Kristen Secora earned her Ph.D. in Language and Communicative Disorders at the University of California San Diego and San Diego State University. As a speech-language pathologist, she has worked in public schools, private private, early intervention, and at a community college. She currently works at the University of Tennessee Knoxville preparing undergraduate students to pursue the field of speech-language pathology. She has a 1-year-old son and loves to read books and go on walks together.

* indicates required
What best describes your role?