It’s very common for young children to make mistakes in their speech when they’re first learning to talk. Kids often substitute one sound for another, such as saying tat when they mean cat. Another common mistake is to omit a sound, such as asking for a poon when they really want a spoon.
Sometimes children will significantly shorten words to make them easier to pronounce. For example, many of my younger students ask to play on my ’puter when they want computer time. This is all part of the process of kids communicating their needs while they’re still learning to imitate the sounds they’re hearing.
Usually, as kids get older they stop making these errors. By age 8, kids are expected to make all their speech sounds correctly and to be understandable by a wide variety of people.
So why do some kids have difficulty with this while others find it so easy? In most cases, we just don’t know. But researchers have identified some factors that increase the chances of having different types of speech issues:
Articulation disorder: Kids with this issue have difficulty with the mouth and tongue movements needed to make certain speech sounds. Their speech errors include substituting one sound for another. For example, they may say wabbit instead of rabbit. They may distort a sound, such as lisping when they say s. Or they may add or delete sounds in different words.
We don’t always know what causes articulation problems. But some medical conditions make articulation difficulties more likely. These include hearing loss or frequent ear infections, illness, orthodontic issues and genetic conditions such as Down syndrome.
Phonological disorder: Kids with this issue make errors on whole groups or “classes” of sounds. For example, they might replace all sounds made in the back of the mouth (like k and g) with sounds made in the front of the mouth (like t and d).
Children might not notice they’re saying tat instead of cat or understand why the difference matters. Frequent ear infections, illness and genetic syndromes are considered risk factors for this disorder.
Childhood apraxia of speech: Kids with this type of pronunciation problem can be very hard to understand. They might not be able to say more than a few speech sounds. And they might appear to struggle physically when they are trying to get words out.
Apraxia of speech is considered a “motor planning disorder.” This means that there’s a disconnect between what the brain wants to say and the brain’s ability to get the lips, tongue and jaw moving correctly to make those sounds.
If you’re concerned about pronunciation, talk to your pediatrician, your child’s teacher or your school’s speech therapist. These people can help identify any speech or language issues your child may have. They can also help put a plan in motion to provide the support your child needs.