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As therapists we are often asked about the intelligibility of toddlers when they speak. Many parents, understandably, are concerned about whether their child’s speech will be intelligible to others outside their immediate family. We like to reassure parents that they can relax, because as a rule of thumb we only expect toddlers to be about 50% understandable to people other than mom and dad. By age 3, the rule of thumb moves to 75%.
Toddlers are just learning to talk and adjusting to the flow of language and often need lots of time to perfect their sounds. In early intervention, we do not directly address articulation, although we are always working on it through play by correctly modeling words for young children. In early intervention we look more at things such as intent to communicate, use of gestures with and without words for communication, imitation skills for sounds and words, developing a single word vocabulary and eventually putting 2-3 words together to form phrases. Most children, by the time they have about 10 or more single words will continue to add new words to their vocabulary on a weekly if not daily basis.
For toddlers, we accept what we call word approximations as real words. This means if Tommy says “ba” for ball consistently because he hasn’t quite mastered the “l” sound, that is ok. It’s the reason you have Rachel saying “gween” for green and Billy saying “geen” for green. Some sounds (such as the letter R) are HARD for little ones to master so early in life.
In fact, some children may be working on sound production until ages 7-8, especially for more difficult sounds such as s, sh, l, r, th and z!
Some ways to work on helping your toddler with his clarity of speech is to always model words correctly for him. Do not fall into the pattern of calling their bottle a “baba” because they do, but rather use the correct pronunciation of bottle each time your child says “baba”. Do not reprimand or try to correct your toddler if they say “geen” for green, but instead just say “Yes, the frog is GREEN”. You can emphasize sounds in words by using inflection in your own voice, but don’t expect Billy to pick up on the “Gr” blend instantly.
You can hold items up to your face when you talk about them so that your child can see and hear what you are saying. Sometimes watching your lips and mouth/tongue move can help your toddler start to make attempts at new sounds. You can also look into a mirror while saying words and sounds so your child can see his own mouth, lips and tongue move.
You can play silly babbling games with your child working on building in different consonant-vowel combinations, such as starting with easier sounds such as “mamama”, changing it to “meemeemee” and “momomo”, “mymymy” and then trying more difficult sound such as “gagaga”, “gegege”, “gogogo” or “tatata”, “teeteetee”, “tototo” etc. See if your child will imitate you. There is no pressure to say an actual word, just fun consontant-vowel practice with mom or dad.
For tougher words you can slow down your speech and enunciate the sounds or break down two syllable words. Such as “Gaaaa….reeeen” for green or “ssssss….nack” for snack or “eeeell…laaaa…phant” for elephant. Many kids think it’s hilarious when you do that and really it engages their listening, which they need in order to imitate new speech sounds.
Many studies have been done on articulation and when certain sounds should be mastered. There are general rules according to various studies, but keep in mind like with all developmental skills there is a range of average. Typically for toddlers we look at the sounds m, b, n, h, w, d, g, k as being mastered by 3. And some two year olds still do things such as leave intial or final sounds off words, or substituting one sound for another and even that’s ok. For example saying “ookie” for cookie or “tookie” for cookie or “gween” for green or “ba” for ball.
A speech therapist named Katie, wrote a really nice article on articulation and toddlers, which includes some charts and information on sounds and when to expect that your child might master them.
If you have questions about your child’s clarity of speech ask your current Early Intervention therapist. Because we cannot directly address your child’s articulation skills on their IFSP, we often encourage parents who still have concerns at age 3 to seek an articulation evaluation at their 3-5 Early Intervention preschool program. Conversely, some parents choose to begin working on articulation by seeking out-patient speech therapy services at age two.