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When Sounds Don't Come Easily

Speech is different to language; it is the medium through which language is spoken. Our speech identifies us, and allows us to create our own individual impression upon what we say, but sometimes, things can go wrong!

There is a developmental journey that young children undertake with regards to speech development. When you hear a young baby saying its first words, quite often they are approximations to the adult form of that word. Instead of the word, ‘cat’ a young child might say ‘tat’ however this is a predictable pronunciation error that most young children would make before they can pronounce the ‘c’ sound.

As children mature, their speech becomes more refined, and their sounds become more precise. By the age of five, children’s speech is well developed and their clarity is of a high quality, however it is still appropriate for them to make some errors such as, ‘wabbit’ instead of ‘rabbit’ or ‘Fursday’ instead of ‘Thursday’.

Most children acquire speech sound development easily and rapidly however for a small percentage (around 6%), this does not occur. In a study by Shriberg (2006) possible causes of speech sound disorders were postulated:

  • Some children may inherit genetically based speech sound disorders, and this group accounts for about 60% of children who are referred to speech pathologists.

  • The second group experienced intermittent hearing loss (often associated with ‘glue ear’) and this group accounts for about 30% of children who are referred to speech pathologists.

  • The final group (which consists of about 10% of children) exhibit a more severe condition that affects their motor speech control; this is often referred to as Childhood Apraxia of Speech, and is by far the most serious of all speech sound disorders.

Some children just have difficulty learning to produce a specific sound such as ‘s’ and although it is acceptable to produce a lisp-like ‘s’ as a young child (where the tongue protrudes between the front teeth), it is not appropriate to do so once the child enters school. Children often find it difficult to say a sound like ‘s’ with the degree of precision that it requires. To produce a sound such as ‘s’, the palate, tongue, lips and airflow all have to be coordinated in a finely tuned way in order to arrive at a crisp clear ‘s’ sound. If the tongue is placed further back in the mouth or too far forward in the front in the mouth, the sound can be distorted, and children get used to speaking this way - so much so that it is difficult for them to altar their tongue placement for better speech production.

It is the role of the speech pathologist to teach children where the sound is made in their mouths, and provide ways for parents to reinforce and facilitate the constant use of that sound; in many cases it is like breaking one habit and reinstating it with a new pattern of movement. Speech pathologists have an important role to play in the remediation of speech sound disorders and articulation disorders. They can draw on a number of evidenced-based programs and theories to drive their therapy. Each child presents with a different pattern of speech problems, a different set of personality traits, and different levels of awareness and motivation. For this reason intervention is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of approach. The therapy must be designed to meet the individual needs of each child.

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