How to tell if your child has a speech or language issue

When learning to communicate, children will make predictable mistakes in both their speech and their language. This is because there are some rules that they have not learnt yet but will grasp these as they grow.

What should my child be able to do with speech and language?

When your child is hard to understand, it can be helpful to know what area of communication they are struggling with. Is it speech or is it language? In order to communicate verbally we need speech and language, your child may be struggling with one, or both.

So what is the difference?

When we refer to speech, we are referring to the sounds that we attach to words in order to communicate our message.

Speech involves:

  • Articulation – This means that we must be able to coordinate all the tools that we have e.g. lips, tongue, teeth, palate, jaw, and vocal cords. Our vocal cords are little pieces of tissue in our throats that move when air passes through. This air is then used to produce sound. When we articulate, we produce the sounds that we need for a word and it is here that your child may make an error e.g. ‘tat’ or ‘cat’.
  • Fluency – This refers to a natural flow of speech where it is smooth and there are no signs of hesitation. When speech is not fluent, we can say it is ‘dysfluent’. We all have dysfluencies occasionally and these are generally nothing to worry about. If we have lots of dysfluencies we may be considered to have a stutter. In the early years, around 2 -5, children may go through a phase where they have a large amount of dysfluent speech. For example, they may repeat a word many times e.g. ‘mum, mum, mum’ or just part of the word e.g. ‘mu, mu, mu’. This is a common phrase and often nothing to worry about. If your child is showing lots of tension when they do this and there are many dysfluencies, it is worth getting an opinion from a speech and language therapist.

Language is made up of:

  • The words or gestures that we use to represent a meaning e.g. ‘hello’ or waving.
  • Understanding how to use these gestures or words in a socially appropriate way
  • Joining words together to make sentences.
  • Using grammatical markers e.g. to show present or past tense and plurals.

Spotting the difference

Some of the telltale signs of a speech or a language challenge are in the boxes below:

Potential difficulties with language.

What can I do?
Your child may struggle to name things in the environment e.g. clothes, animals, objects Name things as part of your daily routine, e.g. while getting dressed or having a bath. Make up songs using a familiar tune and incorporate the words to help your child learn.
Your child may get frustrated when trying to find words when asking for something or sharing information. Encourage your child where possible to show you or take you to what they want. Offer lots of praise for ‘good trying’. When you know what it is they want, clearly model it back to them e.g. ‘apple’.
Your child may speak in very short sentences using just one or two words. Expand on your child’s utterance e.g. child: ‘dog’, You: ‘a big dog’ or ‘a big brown dog’. This will expose your child to more words in a context that they are familiar with whilst acknowledging their communication.
Your child may use grammatically incorrect utterances e.g. ‘They is my friends’. Model back the correct structure whilst paying attention to what your child has communicated with you e.g. ‘They are your friends, what are their names?’
Potential difficulties with speech. What can I do?
Your child may have very few sounds and is therefore saying the same one or two sounds for everything or saying very little at all. Play games where your child is encouraged to look at your mouth as you make sounds in a mirror together. Highlight how your lips and tongue move. Listen to sounds and get your child to do an action when they hear it e.g. for /m/ they might rub their tummy as in Mmmmm or for /ee/ they might pretend to be a squeaking mouse.

If you feel your child’s speech is significantly behind or that they are having difficulties controlling the muscles of their mouth, refer on to a speech and language therapist for an evaluation.

Your child may substitute one sound for another e.g. t for k so ‘cat’ sounds like ‘tat’ or r for w so ‘rabbit’ sounds like ‘wabbit’. If you know what your child is saying then repeat back the word using the correct sound, so they can hear it. You can also try playing listening games where your child must listen for the sound that they are not saying e.g listen for R and act like a rabbit when they hear it. You can then say ‘W, W, R, W, R’ with your child listening carefully and acting like a rabbit when the r sound is heard.
May get the syllables incorrect up when saying a longer word e.g. ‘aminal’ for ‘animal’ You can ask your child to look at you and together slowly clap or tap the sounds out slowly saying each on at a time e.g. a-ni-mal. This will help your child to become aware of how words are made up of individual sounds and they will have fun clapping them out in other words too!
A cluster/blend sound may be reduced e.g. ‘spoon’ may sound like ‘poon’ or ‘soon’. Children might do this until around 4-5 years of age. Tell your child that sound sounds have friends and that is when two sounds are together e.g. ‘sp’. Play a listening game where they tell you if they can hear the friend or not e.g. Adult ‘S, S, SP, S’. Your child shouts ‘friend’ when they hear the friend. This will raise their awareness to some of these sound pairs.
Dysfluent speech e.g. ‘m,m,mum’ or ‘ca, ca, can I have’ Give your child plenty of time to finish what they are saying. Avoid finishing their words for them. Model a slow and calm rate of speech.