As young children learn to speak, many parents listen closely to what they hear, trying to ensure that their toddler is on track with his speech development. Toddlers can have trouble pronouncing many words that are new to them, and it is sometimes difficult to know what are age-appropriate sounds. Speech is the verbal expression of language, including how words and sounds are pronounced, and it develops along a predictable pattern in most children. Most children master single sounds before they are able to blend sounds, such as the /sn/ in "snake" and /br/ in "bread." Most children are preschoolers before they can correctly produce these blends.
Mastering Single Sounds
Speech development usually begins with children producing vowel sounds as newborns, and then adding consonants to their babbling. New sounds are added to their speech repertoire as they grow, but at the age of 3, there are only about 12 single sounds that most children should be able to produce in words. They are p, m, h, w, b, n, k, d, g, t, f, y. Some of these sounds are not fully mastered until the child is almost 4 years old, and many other sounds are not expected until well into preschool or elementary school. A toddler mispronouncing words is common and often developmentally appropriate.
Consonant blends are the beginnings or endings of words in which two consonants are together. Some common blends include bl-, br-, dr-, sl-, sm-, sn-, st-, and sw-. Most toddlers are not expected to be able to produce these sounds, as the Talking Child's Speech and Articulation Development Chart shows these blends developing between the ages of 3 and 4. It is common for young children to leave one sound off of these blends when using them in words. For instance, "smile" becomes "mile."
Signs of a Delay
Most young toddlers should be babbling and using a variety of consonant sounds in their "talk." By the time they turn 2, children should be using about 50 words and be able to follow one-step directions. It is important for parents to remember that all children develop at different rates, and these are just guidelines. However, if a child is not meeting these developmental milestones or is difficult to understand as they approach preschool age, have a professional listen to him and decide whether speech therapy could be beneficial.
How to Help
It is important for children to hear proper models of the sounds they will later produce, so parents should speak to their toddlers as often as possible as they discuss their day or what they are playing. Parents and caregivers should encourage the child to look at them as they speak so she can watch how the mouth makes each sound. Parents should speak slowly and clearly so the child is more likely to imitate the sounds. It is also important to ensure that young children are hearing well so they will be more able to produce the sounds they hear. They should have ear infections treated properly and watch for any changes in their child's ability to hear.