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Children’s speech sound difficulties can have an impact on their ability to make themselves understood and developing reading and writing skills. Children may not be able to use a specific sound or sounds in their speech; others struggle to co-ordinate the movements of their lips and tongue to accurately sequence sounds to make words.

Talking with a dummy in the mouth makes it difficult to communicate successfully. If your child is still using a dummy, it is a good idea to reduce and preferably stop daytime dummy use to give your child the best chance at communicating effectively.

Things that help:

  • Always be positive about your child’s speech and use lots of praise.
  • Have fun playing with interesting sounds together, like animal and transport noises.
  • Encourage your child to talk and play with others. This will help their communication skills and confidence to develop.
  • Turn off the TV, radio and DVD whilst you practise so your child can hear you and other people speaking.
  • Repeat words clearly back to your child without asking them to copy (this is called modelling).

Child: “look, a tat”

You: “Yes it’s a cat”

  • Listen to what your child says and not how they say it.
  • Songs and rhymes can be really helpful.

Things to avoid

  • Don’t tell your child that they have made a mistake … try to accept their attempt at a word, however unclear it may seem. Use modelling instead.
  • Don’t try to make your child say a sound or word correctly. This may lead to frustration or a negative attitude towards speaking.
  • Don’t allow your child to talk with a dummy in. It is better to keep dummy use to bedtimes and it should always come out for talking.

If you are having trouble understanding your child you could:

  • Ask them to say it again
  • Go back and repeat the part of the message you understood e.g. “Going where?” or “Mum said what?”
  • Ask them to tell you some more about it
  • Can they show you or take you there?

Once you think you have grasped what the child has said, repeat it back to them.

How to support your child when they are difficult to understand:

 Ask the child to tell you another way or show you

  • Ask questions around what the child is trying to say to gain more information e.g. did this happen at home or at school?
  • Try to avoid asking questions which are open-ended and have no context such as “what did you do over the weekend?”
  • Build up effective home/school liaison which may take the form of a diary. This will enable both parties to jot down any information of note which the child is likely to discuss, for example, weekend activities.
  • Build up a list of names of key family members, pets, and friends. Names are often the hardest words to decipher.
  • If you do not understand all that a child has said, repeat back the sentence to the point where you got lost; it is less laborious for the child to repeat back a small chunk rather than the whole sentence
  • Try to avoid making non-committal noises if you cannot understand a child; they are likely to guess that you have not understood
  • Communicate with a child face-to-face; children with speech difficulties sometimes compensate by using more facial expression or gesture

Taken from ‘Communication Difficulties – an Information Pack for Leeds Schools’ (Janet Addison and Anne Wirt, 1996)

Talking usually starts with babbling, which will develop into attempts to say real words. This sometimes sounds like words, and we call this jargon.

It is important to know that some speech sounds develop later than others, and it is typical for young children not to be able to say some sounds.

Generally, children can say these sounds by the following ages: 

Sounds often develop in the same order, even if they develop later than the speech wheel shows.


50% of children

90% of children

Common vowels

1 ½ to 2 years

3 years

p b m n t d w

1 ½ to 2 years

3 years

k g f h y

1 ½ to 3 years

4 years

ng s

1 ½ to 3 years

5 years


3 to 3 ½ years

6 years

sh ch j z v

3 ½ to 4 ½ years

6 years


4 ½ to 5 years

7 years

Clusters (such as cl fl br tr sm st sk etc)

5 years

7 years

Clusters (such as str skr spl etc)

5 years plus

7 years plus

It is also common for children to mispronounce some words while they are learning.  Some things you might hear include:

Missing off the ends of words e.g. “dog” is said as “do”

Usually heard until 2 ½ years

Making sounds made at the back of the mouth (k or g) at the front. e.g. “cat” is said as “tat”, “go” as “do”

Usually heard until 3 years

Saying long sounds such as ‘s’ as shorter sounds such as ‘t’ e.g. “sun” is said as “tun”

Can be heard until 4 years

When two sounds are said together (eg: sp), missing one out e.g. “star” is said as “tar”


Can be heard until 4½ years

Putting the sounds in the wrong order e.g. “caterpillar” is said as “paterkiller”

Can be heard until 5 years

Pronouncing ‘s’ as a ‘th’ (also known as a lisp)

Can be heard until 5 years

Children learn speech and language from what they hear around them.

It is important that when a child makes a mistake that you respond to them with the correct sounds, words or sentences so that they can hear how it should sound. This is called modelling.

There is no need to ask your child to repeat what you are saying, hearing how it should sound will often be enough.

  • Repeat words clearly back to the child e.g. child says “look, a tat”, adult says “Yes, it’s a cat”
  • Emphasise the sounds your child finds difficult when you are talking e.g. “it’s a cat”
  • Try to do this without criticising your child or drawing attention to their errors.
  • Try not to interrupt the flow of the conversation - aim to keep it natural and respond to what they have said.

Before children can start to learn speech sounds, they need to be ready!

The following games and activities can be used to help improve early listening skills and to make children aware of the sounds they can hear around them, which will help to learn to speak clearly later on.

Remember to keep the activities fun – it’s often better to keep activities short to start with.

Listening for sounds:

When you’re out and about, listen to what you can hear together e.g. ‘can you hear the birds singing?’ Talk about the sounds – are they quiet sounds? Noisy sounds? See if you can try and make the same sounds yourselves!

Later, see how many sounds your child can remember.

With their eyes closed, ask your child to identify different everyday noises e.g. clock ticking, coins rattling, squeaky toys, paper rustling, kettle boiling etc.

Same / different: Make two sounds (or for slightly older children say two words) and ask them to tell you if two sounds or words are the same or different, or whether they are long or short.

Actions to sounds games

Create games where, for example, they run when they hear one sound, and jump when they hear another. This is lots of fun to make up different actions together, and works really well with more than one child too!

Have fun making “symbolic sounds” together (sounds that mean something)  – animal noises, transport noises, and fun sounds such as “uh-oh” when something falls on the floor, or “mmmmm!” when your food is nice. These sounds are really interesting to listen to and fun to copy.

Copying games

Don’t worry about speech sounds to begin with, if a child is finding speech difficult, it may be easier to learn the skills separately.

Have fun looking in a mirror and pulling faces, or a big mirror with big dance moves! – can you copy each other?

Clap in simple sequences and then ask your child to copy the sequence. Try fast, slow, stop-starts to make it fun and encourage good listening!

Have lots of fun singing nursery rhymes and action rhymes together!

Try the following activities to support a child’s ability to hear the sounds in words. Remember that the focus of these activities is on listening and not for the child to say the words.

Nursery Rhymes

  • Sing nursery rhymes together
  • Sit facing the child so they can see your mouth moving
  • Be animated and make it fun! Use gestures and use your voice to make it exciting
  • ‘Chunk’ the parts together, leaving gaps between phrases
  • Emphasise the rhyming words
  • When the child is familiar with a nursery rhyme, try leaving out a rhyming word to see if the child can remember it.

Clapping Out Syllables

  • It might be easier to use the word ‘claps’ or ‘taps’ when introducing syllables to the child, e.g. “how many claps are in the word?”
  • You need to model syllables first for the child to begin to understand how you are breaking up words. You can do this by clapping out the syllables in familiar words such as names of family members and friends, e.g. ‘Char-lotte’ and tapping on the table the number of syllables in objects around you e.g. ‘pen’, ‘pen-cil’, ‘ru-ler’, ‘te-le-vis-ion’ etc
  • Point out items in books/ catalogues and identify the syllables e.g. ‘ae-ro-plane’ ‘sun-shine’

Phonics Games

  • Look at books and pictures where pictures are used to represent sound e.g. ‘Jollyphonics,’ ‘Ruth Miskin,’ ‘Letters and Sounds,’ ‘Read, Write, Inc’
  • If the sounds also have actions, teach the children these through songs, listening to CDs etc.
  • Put the pictures out on the floor so the children can see them. The adult says one of the sounds and the children listen and identify it.

Identifying Words that are the Same/Different

  • Make a puppet or soft toy ‘say’ a selection of words
  • The child needs to listen to the toy saying two words and decide if they are the same or different
  • Initially try and choose words that are very different, e.g. sausage…egg
  • If the child can do this, choose words that sound similar e.g. sun…mum
  • Then try words that only differ by one sound (known as ‘minimal pairs’) e.g. fun…sun, fat…cat, dog…frog, boy…toy, book…look, tin…pin, man…van, glove…love

First Sound Matching                

  • Say to the child that you want to fill a bag with things that start with the letter ‘…’ Walk around the room to find items that start with that letter. If the child chooses an item incorrectly, tell them which letter it starts with. If they get it right, really emphasise the letter e.g. ‘well done! Snake starts with ssssssssss’
  • Take turns to think of words that start with the letter ‘…’ e.g. ‘Ben’ ‘bin’ ‘big’ ‘bed’
  • Play ‘I spy…’ where children need to listen to the first letter and find a word that starts with it.

Here are some helpful videos about ways to support speech sound development, produced by Barnsley Speech & Language Therapy Service, at the South West Partnership NHS Foundation Trust:

Sound discrimination – sound lotto

Minimal Pairs – sound discrimination

Sound Properties – sorting sounds

Teaching new sounds – speech steps

Helping speech sounds – syllables

Sometimes we need to think about what makes sounds different. Being able to hear the differences between two different sounds can help with saying them.

Front and back

It is common for children to confuse ‘k’ and ‘t’, or ‘g’ and ‘d’ sounds in words, so cat might become ‘tat’, goat might become ‘doat’.

We can think about these sounds in terms of where the sound is produced in the mouth – the front or the back.  So ‘k’ and ‘g’ are back sounds because the back of our tongue moves up to touch the roof of our mouth; ‘t’ and ‘d’ are sounds made at the front of our mouth where the tip of the tongue touches just behind our teeth.

It is important that children understand the difference between front and back before they work on the sound – try activities with toys, e.g. putting people at the front and back of a toy train, to help to support understanding, and reinforce with examples in real-life e.g. Mummy’s sitting in the front of the car.

Long and short

It is common for children to shorten long sounds in words for example some children may shorten the long sound ‘s’ to the short sound ‘t’ or ‘d’ e.g. sun may be produced as “tun” or “dun”.

We can think about these sounds in terms of length.  So ‘s’ and’ ‘f are long sounds because we can keep the sound going for a long time, ‘t’ and ‘p’ are short sounds as they cannot be lengthened.

Long sounds

s, sh, v, z, m, n, f

Short sounds

p, b, t, d, k, g

It is important that children understand the difference between long and short before they work on the sound – to help with this, collect long and short items to compare, or draw long and short lines!

Loud and quiet

It is common for children to confuse loud and quiet sounds in words for example some children may make quiet sounds loud e.g. car could be produced as “gar” and tea as “dea”.

We can think about these sounds in terms in volume.  So z, b, d, g are loud sounds because we are using our voice (the vocal cords are vibrating) when we make these sounds; s, p, t, k are quiet sounds (no vocal cord vibration).

It is important that children understand the difference between loud and quiet before they work on the sound – listen to sounds, turn the volume up and down, or practice whispering and shouting.

Often a child is able to say a sound in structured activities when they are concentrating on speech, but it can be harder to remember to use it in conversation. This is called “generalising”.

Generalising a sound to everyday conversation takes longer and requires lots of practice.  Here are some things you can do to help.

Play games to practice using the target:

  • i-spy (things that start with…)
  • I went shopping and bought ...
  • look and listen for your target sounds in books and games or when you’re out and about

Make up special looks / gestures to help the child remember.

e.g. fish sign to remember ffff

Pretend to misunderstand when they get thing wrong.

Offer choices when you notice a mistake.

e.g. Child: “The bish is swimming”

Adult: “The bish or the fish?”

Child: “Fish”

Adult: “yes, the fish is swimming!”

The above is giving them an example to copy. When they no longer need this, it can be helpful to encourage the child to work towards correcting their own speech, by sometimes presenting it as a question e.g. “the bish is swimming?”

It can become frustrating if a child is trying to tell you something but you’re thinking about how they said it! Try not to draw attention to every mistake – choosing a specific time of day e.g. at a meal time or in a specific class activity works really well.

Modelling the sound at other times e.g. if they say “tar”, you can say “yes, it’s a star” (without correcting or asking for repetition) is still helping them hear the difference.

Phonological awareness is an awareness of all of the sounds of language. It is the ability to hear and distinguish sounds.

Phonological awareness skills develop with age and are required for children to be able to make letters and sounds go together in words.

These skills are intrinsic to reading and writing.

For children with speech sound difficulties, phonological awareness skills need to be in place before we can expect them to use new sounds in words.

Developmental Progression of Phonological Awareness

Approximate age

Phonological awareness skills


(Nursery and Reception)

Nursery rhymes

Rhyme recognition

Syllable blending

Syllable recognition


(Reception and Year 1)


Beginning sound matching

Onset-rime segmentation

Rhyme production

5 ½

(Year 1)

Syllable manipulation

Identification of beginning and end phonemes

Phoneme blending

Phoneme segmentation


(Year 1 to Year 2)

Phoneme addition

Phoneme deletion

Phoneme substitution

To develop phonological awareness skills it is important to begin with more general types of listening skills and bigger ‘chunks’ and gradually move to smaller ‘chunks’ until children learn to listen to and use individual sounds of language.

Reference: Muter (2003) Early Reading Development and Dyslexia. London. Whurr.

Supporting rhyme skills with nursery rhymes

Activity Ideas

  • Sing nursery rhymes together
  • Sit facing the child so they can see your mouth moving
  • Be animated and make it fun! Use gestures and use different voices to make it exciting
  • ‘chunk’ the parts together, leaving gaps between phrases
  • Emphasise the rhyming words
  • When the child is familiar with a nursery rhyme, try leaving out a rhyming word to see if the child can remember it.

Rhyme recognition


Make sure the child understands the concepts “same” and “different” before starting!

Remember that the focus is on the child being able to HEAR the rhyming words, so don’t worry if they can’t say them properly.

Activity Ideas

  • Use a selection of objects / pictures or ready-made age appropriate rhyming games
  • Make it fun. You could pull 2 objects out of a feely bag / magic box, or play ‘pairs’ where the pictures are all facing down and you take turns to turn them over
  • Sit facing each other so you can see and hear each other properly
  • Make sure you have the child’s full attention before saying the words
  • The adult says two words and the child decides if they rhyme or not

e.g. ‘dog’ and ‘frog’ – do they sound the same?

  • If the child says ‘yes’ and gets it right , give them lots of praise and repeat the words.. “yes dog and frog sound the same”
  • If the child says ‘no’ and gets it wrong, then say the words again putting emphasis on the rhyming section…”listen again, dog, frog, are they the same?”

Syllable Recognition and Syllable Blending

NOTE - for children finding it difficult to listen and count at the same time a ‘syllable counting board’ could be used to help. The child moves their finger along a board with numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 on, when it is time to answer they look which number they are on.

Activity Ideas

  • It might be easier to use the word ‘claps’ or ‘taps’ when introducing syllables to the child e.g. “how many claps are in it?”
  • You need to model syllables first for the child to begin to understand how you are breaking up words:
    • Try clapping out people’s names e.g. ‘Char-lotte’
    • Tap on the table the number of syllables in objects around you e.g. ‘pen’ ‘pen-cil’ ‘ruler’
    • Point out items in books/ catalogues and identify the syllables e.g. ‘aero-plane’ ‘sun-shine’
  • When the child is ready to start identifying the syllables themselves you could try any of the ideas above or use ready made pictures to:
    • Put pictures in appropriate boxes labelled 1/2/3/4 for the number of syllables
    • Adult could say either 1,2,3 or 4 and child finds a picture with that amount of syllables
    • Use a large sized colouring in picture of an object e.g. elephant. Identify the number of syllables then let the child cut the picture into the same number of pieces
  • The child will be aware of how the syllables blend together if the adult repeats the whole words back after recognising the syllables.
  • For another blending task, the adult could say a word with 2 or 3 syllables leaving big gaps between them, then the child says the word e.g. ‘cow…………boy’ = ‘cowboy’

Grapheme to Phoneme (Letter to Sound) Awareness


When working at this level it is vital to use the letter SOUND, not the letter NAME,

e.g. ‘s’ is produced ‘sssssssss’, not ‘ess’.

Activity Ideas For Phonics Flashcards

  • Pairs (using 2 copies)
  • Snap (using 2 copies)
  • Hide pictures around the room - make a sound and the child needs to find the right picture. You could make the sound louder as the child is getting nearer to the picture
  • Stepping stones - put the pictures on the floor. The adult says a sequence of sounds and the child steps on the correct pictures
  • Posting game - adult says a sound, the child needs to find it and post it in a box or put it in the bag
  • Feely bag - adult puts a selection of pictures in a bag. The child pulls a picture out without looking and the adult makes the sound
  • Sound maker - the child could point to a sequence of sounds and the adult makes the sounds that are pointed to, each picture could be touched more than once e.g. ‘p…p…k…t…b…s…s…sh…f…h’

Alliteration and Beginning Sound Matching

NOTE - children will need to have some letter-sound awareness at this stage in order to carry out alliteration activities. Make sure that the child knows what individual sounds LOOK like and SOUND like. Phonics books, pictures and flashcards can used to develop this.

Activity Ideas

Picture games

  • Use pairs of words, put the words on the table, take turns to find 2 pictures that start with the same sound.
  • You could give the child 2 pictures that start with the same letter, ask them to identify the first sound, then come up another word of their own. E.g. show them ‘pig’ ‘pan’, they think of another word e.g. ‘pen’
  • You could play odd-one-out games e.g. child looks at 3 pictures…’boy’ ‘bear’ ‘cow’ and decides ‘cow’ is the odd one out

Other games

  • “I went to market…” play this game but only thinking of words that start with one sound e.g. ‘bin’ ‘bed’ ‘box’
  • “I spy”- people take turns to guess what the leader is thinking of by using only the first letter
  • Put a selection of written letters in a box, take turns to pull one out then say as many words as you can think of starting with that letter.

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