What is A “Speech Disorder”?

Parents often ask, “What is a speech disorder?” and “How do I know if my child has a speech disorder”?  Young children often mispronounce sounds but, over time, typically acquire sounds by listening to how people say them, figuring out how to move their tongue around in their mouths, or learning how to alter the way they produce a sound to say it correctly. 

We know that the “r” sound is a harder sound for children to pick up easily or, sometimes, even on their own as the sound itself is fairly complex. “R” requires the tongue to be placed high in the roof of the mouth, and then and moved while producing the sound. They are also various “R” vowels involving different placement that increases the complexity. This is why parents and teachers may think it’s “cute” if a child uses “w” for the “r” sound, saying “wode” for “rode” or “eawwing” for “earring;” this is the most common substitution for “r” used by a child with a speech disorder.

Most children can pick up harder sounds such as “r” or “l” on their own while, for others, learning how to make the speech sounds correctly may be more difficult. Some children may have many sounds they are missing, making their speech hard to understand, while others may be missing just a few sounds that children their age typically have already mastered. Depending on what standardized testing scores show, the sounds missing and how they affect the child’s ability to be understood (called “intelligibility”), and which sound errors the child has may determine if a child has a speech sound disorder.

When should children be able to produce various sounds?

According to Linguisystems sound chart, children should be acquiring these consonant sounds by the following ages:

Sound  Age  Sound  Age
p 3 years t 5 years
m 3 years r 6 years
h 3 years l 6 years
n 3 years ch 7 years
w 3 years sh 7 years
b 4 years j 7 years
k 4 years s 8 years
g 4 years z 8 years
d 4 years v 8 years
f 4 years th 8 years
y 4 years zh 8 years

However, it’s important to note that not all researchers conclude that these are the ages when children should have mastered these consonant sounds, as some studies have indicated that children should have acquired consonant sounds earlier than the ages indicated in Linguisystems, Guide to Communication Milestones by Janet R. Lanza and Lynn K. Flahive (2008).

In Linguisystems, Guide to Communication Milestones, the authors indicate that researchers have used two different methodologies to determine the age of speech-sound acquisition, which is why there is not universal agreement in the field of speech pathology as to when children acquire particular sounds by what ages. For example, some studies concluded that sounds produced correctly 100% of the time were considered mastered, but for others, producing the sound 75% of the time was the criterion. Also in some studies, mastery of the sound was based on words that were produced spontaneously, while in others, mastery was based on the child’s ability to imitate sounds. Although there is variability in criteria for mastery of sounds in various studies, there is some general agreement about when children should have achieved mastery of individual sounds. Let’s walk through the progression in which children typically acquire each type of sound production:

Sounds that are produced by “nasalizing” (air coming out through the nose) are acquired earliest, typically around three years old. These sounds are “m, n, and ing.” Sounds produced by air pressure building in the oral cavity and then released quickly in a “burst” of air by using lips, tongue, or palate to produce the sound, such as “p, b, t, d, k, and g” are called “stops.” According to Linguisystems, these are typically mastered by ages three through five.  The sounds “w” and “y” are also typically mastered around this time.  The next sounds that are typically acquired are those called, “fricatives” which are produced by a continuous air stream released while using the teeth or tongue to produce sound. These include “f, v, s, z, sh, and zh.” After these are mastered, the next sounds typically acquired are the voiced (using the larynyx) “th” and voiceless (the larynx is not used) “th.” Sounds that begin like a stop, but release air similar to a fricative sound, called “affricates,” are the next sounds to typically be acquired. These include the sounds: “ch” and “j .  Lastly, per Linguistems, the “liquids,” or sounds where the tongue is positioned in the mouth to make a vowel-like consonant, are acquired, such as the “l” and “r” sounds. These can be the most difficult for children to pick up on their own and ones that can be commonly worked on when children need speech therapy.

If you are concerned about your child’s ability to produce sounds and would be interested in scheduling a speech evaluation to assess their skills, we’d be glad to have you come see us. We are able to administer standardized tests to compare your child’s speech sound abilities to other children their age, based on normed data, and therefore determine the need for speech therapy. You can call to schedule an appointment by calling our office at 865-693-5622.

If you are not local, please look on American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s website for a local speech-language pathologist near you.

–Debby Curlee Hall M.A. CCC-SLP

Additional References:

Back To School – What To Expect Of Your Kindergartener’s Communication Skills

Helping your child make the adjustment to being in kindergarten can be difficult and stressful, even if your child’s been in preschool. For parents of kindergarteners, having your child start in a new school with a lot of bigger and older children can be hard on them, and on you!

Your kindergartener might “get in trouble” with the teacher for “not listening”. Or he or she may exhibit behaviors at home due to stress in adjusting to a new situation with new expectation of having to learn to sit and obey the teacher’s rules, follow long directions, and to “do work.”

More and more is expected of children at a younger age these days, and we oftentimes forget that this is especially hard on a child that may be barely 5 years old who has had more unstructured preschool experiences and less expected of him or her. For a child who has a speech or language disorder, diagnosed or not yet diagnosed, this can be an even more difficult adjustment. If a child has difficulty making sounds clear enough for people to understand them, then it may be hard for them to make new friends because the other five year old children may “give up” if they don’t understand his or her comments or questions and walk away. Worse yet, they may snicker or even laugh if he or she has a lot of sound errors or even stutters.

If a kindergartener has an undiagnosed (or diagnosed) language disorder, then even the ability to follow one or two simple directions in a sequence may be hard for them. They may struggle with simple directions such as the teacher saying, “Push your chair in and get in line by the door” or “Get the green crayon and make a circle on the paper.”

The American Speech Language Hearing Association website (http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/kindergarten) provides information as to what children’s communication skills should be like for “Listening” and “Speaking” by the end of kindergarten. Please keep in mind that many kindergarten teachers will expect your child to be doing this upon entering kindergarten which, many kindergarteners, can already do:


  • Follow 1-2 simple directions in a sequence
  • Listen to and understand age-appropriate stories read aloud
  • Follow a simple conversation


  • Be understood by most people
  • Answer simple “yes/no” questions
  • Answer open-ended questions (e.g. “What did you have for lunch today?”)
  • Retell a story or talk about an event
  • Participate appropriately in conversation
  • Show interest in and start conversations

In Teach Me to Talk! The Therapy Manual by Laura Mize, M.A., CCC-SLP (2011) says that children should use 2,200-2,5000 words in their own expressive language by this age. Children with speech and language impairments may slide “under the radar” at school for months if the child is thought of as “quiet” or “shy,” which can be the result of that child’s awareness that people don’t understand them or because they have trouble answering open-ended questions. If a child is aware that they have difficulties with speech sounds or language, they will become less apt to participate when the teacher asks a question or to join in play situations with other children. Over time, these children’s academics or their ability to socialize and develop relationships with peers may be affected.

These guidelines for kindergarteners from the ASHA.org website give us an idea of what children should be able to do for speaking and listening. Those are the fundamentals to how we all use language to make our needs known, respond to others, convey emotions, and understand what is being spoken.

If you are concerned about your child’s ability to be understood or to express themselves even as a kindergartener starting out in school, it’s always better to let the teacher know of your concerns and to ask that your school’s speech therapist screen them to see if further testing is needed.

We are available for questions and arranging an appointment to schedule an evaluation with us if you have concerns. This can be done by calling our office at 865-693-5622 . If you ask your doctor to refer your child to us, we are glad to do a free screening and share our findings with him or her. Our screening would let us know if further testing is needed or if we can show you ways to work with your child at home to improve their ability to communicate with peers and teachers in order to maintain their self-confidence and self-esteem in a new school situation.

–Debby Curlee Hall M.A. CCC-SLP