How Well Should Your Child's Speech Be Understood

Speech clarity, also known as speech intelligibility, refers to how much of your child’s speech can be understood–whether by you, or by someone who doesn’t know them well. We can describe a child’s speech clarity whether they’re using single words, like “doggy” or “bubble,” or if they’re using connected speech, like “big doggy” or “pop the bubble!”

Up until about 5 years old, there’s a wide range of what we’d consider “typical” speech clarity. We know that young children are constantly learning and growing, so it makes sense that they’d go through phases when it comes to mastering speech sounds.

So, let’s discuss speech norms for typically developing children. In the past, experts stated that 50% of a child’s speech should be understood by age 2, 75% by age 3, and 90% by age 4. That remains a fair marker for familiar listeners–people like family members who hear a child’s speech every day. But what about unfamiliar listeners, who don’t often interact with your child–say, a store cashier or a distant relative? New studies have led to updated speech norms that consider how well your child is understood by people who don’t know them well. Ideally, we want anyone to understand at least 50% of what a child says by the time they’re 4 years old. By age 5, we’d look for them to be 75% understood. And by age 7, they should be 90% understood by anyone they speak to.

It’s also helpful to know when the specific sounds used in American English typically develop. By the age of 5, most children can produce almost all types of speech sounds. Here, you can see which sounds typically develop at each age. Usually sounds like /p/, /b/, and /d/ are first to develop, with /r/ and TH coming later.

The reason speech sounds tend to develop in a certain order is because some sounds are much easier to make, so we master them sooner! Try it — a /p/ simply requires you to make a quiet popping sound with your lips. Now try the /r/ sound. It requires intricate tongue and jaw movement and tension to say correctly.

So, why is all of this important to know? We want you to understand what’s expected for your child’s age. If other people often can’t understand your 3-year-old, or your toddler can’t pronounce the /s/ sound, this doesn’t necessarily mean they have a speech problem. There’s still time for these sounds to develop! Of course, if it turns out your child does have a speech sound disorder, early detection is important so speech therapy can begin. Ongoing challenges with speech clarity can negatively affect a child’s social life, educational achievement, and overall quality of life. So it’s important to pay attention to your child’s speech and how well it’s understood as they get older. If you have concerns, it’s a good idea to contact a speech-language pathologist for an evaluation.

So, to wrap up, here are a few key takeaways:

  • Speech clarity refers to how much of your child’s speech can be understood.

  • Although there’s a wide range of “normal,” we do have research that supports a typical developmental sequence from ages 2 to 6.

  • With this information, you can know what to expect given your child’s age–and when it might make sense to have a speech evaluation.

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