What’s the Difference Between a Speech Delay and a Speech Sound Disorder?

When children are learning to talk, it’s common for them to make errors in the way they produce speech. Maybe your child is experiencing a lisp, or they’re mispronouncing certain sounds, syllables, or words. 

While some children will “outgrow” their speech problems over time, others do not. These speech issues can last into adulthood, affecting your child’s speech clarity, academic achievement, confidence, self-esteem, and ability to clearly express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

In this article, we discuss the differences between a speech delay and a speech sound disorder. You'll learn how you can help your child at home and when speech therapy might be needed. Let’s dive in!

What is a speech delay?

A speech delay is when a toddler doesn’t meet the typical speech milestones for their age. They develop speech sounds in an expected order, but at a slower rate than normal.

Every child follows their own developmental timeline. However, there are certain speech milestones that children typically meet within an expected age range. For example, by age 1 year, a child is typically putting sounds together to say things like “mimi” and “upup.” And by the time they are 3 years old, toddlers should be using a wide range of sounds in words, like /b/, /n/, /t/, /w/, /g/, /f/, and /h/.

Another part of speech development is the clarity of a child’s speech. Ideally, we want anyone to be able to understand at least 50% of what a child says by the time they’re 4 years old.

A speech delay can have a number of causes. One common cause is oral-motor problems, which means trouble coordinating the tongue, lip, and mouth movements needed to articulate sounds properly. 

What is a speech sound disorder?

Speech sound disorders refer to difficulties in motor production, perception, or phonological representation of speech sounds. These problems often lead to less clear speech, which disrupts how well other people can understand the speaker.

It's normal for toddlers and young children to have a hard time pronouncing certain sounds. After all, speech skills naturally develop over time, and errors are often a part of the learning process.

By the age of 5, most children should be able to pronounce almost all types of speech sounds.

Some sounds may come more easily, like /p/, /m/, and /b/. Others are more difficult, such as /r/, /z/, and /s/. By the age of 5, most children should be able to pronounce almost all types of speech sounds. When a child has difficulty saying sounds or words correctly past a certain age, this can be a sign of a speech sound disorder.

There can be several causes of speech sound disorders, such as brain damage, intellectual or developmental disability, genetic disorder, or hearing loss

Broadly speaking, there are two types of speech sound disorders: articulation disorders and phonological process disorders. Here’s a brief overview: 

Articulation disorders: Producing a sound involves coordinated movements of the lips, tongue, teeth, palate (top of the mouth), and respiratory system (lungs). Children with articulation disorders have a tough time using these motor functions to physically produce the correct speech sounds. The result is the inability to form intelligible words past a certain age. Sounds may be distorted or swapped for another sound. For example, a child may add sounds, like saying “joosk” instead of “juice.” 

Phonological disorders: Phonological disorders are characterized by a regular pattern in which a person may be able to produce individual sounds correctly, but they have difficulty putting these sounds together to form words. For example, they may be able to make the /d/ sound, but they swap it out for the /g/ sound in certain words, pronouncing “doe" instead of "go.”

What’s the difference between a speech delay and a speech sound disorder?

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a speech delay and a speech sound disorder. A speech-language pathologist, also known as a speech therapist, can make the diagnosis after an evaluation. But broadly speaking:

  • A speech delay is when speech is developing in the expected order, but it’s occurring later or more slowly than is typical.

  • A speech sound disorder is when the child is unable to produce speech sounds correctly. Their mistakes are not typical sound errors, or there are unusual patterns to their sound errors.

In general, both speech delays and speech sound disorders may affect how well a child is able to communicate with others. If they’re not able to be clearly understood, their underlying message may be lost, and that can be a frustrating thing to experience. 

Expert tips to support your child’s speech at home

Parents and caregivers play an essential role in helping their child reach their speech and language goals. Here are some easy, everyday ways you can help your child practice speech at home.

  • Talk with your child a lot. Even a simple act, like narrating what you’re doing using clear speech, can be helpful: “I’m cutting up a banana for your lunch.”

  • Read books aloud. If your child loses interest, you can talk about the pictures.

  • Model clear speech and emphasize how to say sounds correctly.

  • Encourage your child to imitate sounds. For example, make a /p/ sound by popping your lips, and encourage your child to copy you. 

  • Help your child listen to sounds and look for differences between the sounds. For example, /s/ has a quiet airflow, while /z/ is a buzzing sound.

  • Use visual cues to help your child articulate sounds correctly. For example, point to your lips while making the /m/ sound in “more.” 

What should I do if I’m concerned about my child’s speech?

Learning about speech delays is one of the most important things a caregiver can do to help their child. However, as mentioned above, telling the difference between speech sound disorders and speech delays can be hard for someone who isn’t a professional. This is why assessment and diagnosis by a licensed speech-language pathologist is so important. 

If your child is having a tough time pronouncing certain sounds, contact a speech therapist for an evaluation. Many speech problems can be treated, and research has shown that the earlier speech therapy begins, the better the outcomes. Helping your child learn to communicate clearly and confidently will have a positive effect on their social, academic, and emotional development.

You can also take our easy online quiz to find out if a speech evaluation is recommended. Or simply contact us for a free phone consultation with a licensed speech therapist! We're here to answer your questions and discuss the right next steps for you and your child.

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