Speech sounds

Children communicate ​​with sounds and vocalisations from birth.

Their “speech” begins with early, involuntary sounds, and develops into sophisticated sequences of movements - using the lips, tongue, and producing all of the sounds in words and sentences.

Speech is a powerful tool for communication. To foster early communicators and language users, educators observe children’s development of:

  • Vocalisations or sometimes called ‘cooing’ (sounds that pave the way to verbal communication)
  • speech sounds (like /b/ /d/ /a/ /s/)
  • phonology (the rules of our sound system).

The importance of speech

By using this focus, educators can help children to explore different vocalisations and speech sounds. This can further develop their vocal communication. Often, children use sounds with gestures to communicate early wants and needs.

Children’s recognition and use of speech sounds are important for early word learning and successful nonverbal and verbal communication with adults and other children.

Children use the language they hear from adults to learn about how sounds work. They then start imitating sounds and words themselves, paving the way for verbal communication.
Educators can help encourage vocal communication, by participating in back-and-forth interactions and sound play with children.

This is where educators and children taking turns communicating using verbal and nonverbal language, and interacting by imitating each other’s actions and sounds. Educators can also use other teaching practices like reading with children, play, and performing arts (rhymes, songs). Child-adult interaction is key to developing speech sounds.

Speech development

The following ages and stages (adapted from Berk, 2013) are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but does not limit the expectations for every child (see VEYLDF Practice Principle: High expectations for every child).

It is always important to understand children’s development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age.

Early communicators (birth - 18 months)

  • Express desires, intentions, and ideas
  • Use nonverbal and verbal communication
  • Combine vocal communication with gestures and facial expressions
  • Start to use vocalisation and babbling (e.g. bababa, dadada)
  • Produce attempts at speech sounds (e.g. /ka/ for "cat").

From gurgles to giggles

Infant vocalisations are automatic (i.e. reflexive) to begin with. Then more intentional vocal communication develops.

Birth - 2 months

Reflexive sounds (e.g. crying, coughs & burps)

2 - 4 months

Cooing (e.g. “ah” and “oo” sounds) and laughter

4 - 6 months

Vocal play, including with pitch, loudness, and funny sounds (raspberries, squeals)

6 months onwards

Babbling sounds (e.g. /babababa/, /dadada/, /bagibu/)

10 months onwards

Babble that sounds like speech (jargon & conversational babble)

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

  • Have growing understanding and use of speech sounds
  • Learn to say longer words with more sounds (e.g. ‘stick’) and more syllables ("pillow", "elephant")
  • May have some typical "speech errors", such as gliding (rabbit—>’wabbit’).

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

  • Speech sounds and words are pronounced clearly (most of the time), while some typical speech errors still occur
  • Have a growing awareness of how sounds work (phonology).

Language and emergent literacy learners may have very clear speech, or may have some typical speech “errors”.

The 44 speech sounds

English is an alphabetic language. We only have 26 letters, but there are 44 speech sounds (phonemes). This includes 20 vowel sounds, and 24 consonant sounds.

View The 44 speech sounds on Vimeo.

You can also learn the ways these sounds (phonemes) appear as different letter patterns (graphemes) in the Phonics section.

Learning to pronounce speech sounds

In the early months of life, children already begin to recognise the distinct sounds of the language(s) they are hearing, and show preferences towards those languages (Kuhl, 2010: Ted Talk). This is because of a powerful process in children’s brains, that happens just by listening to lots of language.

By doing this, children learn about how their language’s sound system (phonology) works. Children start to produce speech sounds themselves at different ages. However, typically developing children usually follow a similar sequence when developing consonant sounds (Shriberg, 1993; Berk, 2013):

Early 8 sounds:

  • Emerging from 1 year; consistent production at 3 years
  • /m/, /b/, “y” as in ‘you’, /n/, /w/, /d/, /p/, /h/.

Middle 8 sounds:

  • Emerging from 3 years; consistent production at 5.5 years
  • /t/, /k/, “ng” as in ‘running’, /g/, /f/, /v/, “ch” as in ‘chew’, “j” as in ‘jump’.

Late 8 sounds:

  • Emerging from 5 years; consistent production at 7.5 years
  • “sh” as in ‘sheep’, /s/, “th” as in ‘think’, “th” as in ‘that’, /r/, /z/, /l/ as in ‘light’, “zh” as in ‘measure’.

Typical speech “errors”

As children are developing their speaking skills, it is expected they will make “errors” with some sounds (like dod for dog, or lellow for yellow).
Some typical speech errors look like this:

  • rabbit —> wabbit
  • cup —> tup
  • spoon —> poon
  • sun —> dun
  • cat —> tat

Some errors which are not as usual for children include:

  • deleting the first sound/s in words (us for bus)
  • deleting the middle sound/s in words (bo-el for bottle)
  • moving sounds to the back of the mouth (guck for duck).

You can encourage children to correct speech errors by repeating what they say with clear, correct pronunciation. If you are concerned about a child’s speech development, you can consider consulting a speech-language pathologist.

Theory to practice

The development of speech sounds is an important part of learning the “form” of oral language (Bloom & Lahey, 1978).

Early communicators begin to use combinations of gesture, facial expression, and vocal communication to communicate. As children gain speaking skills, they use speech sounds and words more strategically to communicate their wants and needs.

Evidence base

Nurturing and responsive learning environments are important for the development of strong speech and language skills (Harrison & McLeod, 2010). This includes frequent opportunities for children to share attention with adults, interact, and hear language for a variety of different purposes.

In line with Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory, and Bruner’s (1986) concept of ‘scaffolding’, children learn through interactions with more knowledgeable others.

Educators should work in partnership with families to provide stimulating interactions and lots of opportunities for young children to hear and use language for a variety of purposes. This will help foster effective spoken communication skills.

Outcome 5 : Communication

Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes:

  • Children engage in enjoyable reciprocal interactions using verbal and non-verbal language
  • Children respond verbally and non-verbally to what they see, hear, touch, feel and taste.

Getting started

Early communicators and early language users (birth - 36 months)

Respond to all attempts at communication with attention and affection. Imitate and respond to all of a child’s attempts to vocalise and gesture.

Imitate and play with speech sounds:

  • Treat every communication attempt as meaningful, and try to respond each time
  • Don’t be afraid to sound silly as you repeat back to the child their sounds and early words.

Enrich every interaction with language:

  • Use every opportunity to comment, describe what is around you, and respond to any child’s attempts to communicate
  • Use teaching practices like language in everyday situations and language stimulation to allow exposure to lots of speech and language.

Games and songs for speech and language:

  • Use speech sounds and language during games like peek-a-boo
  • Emphasise speech sounds in nursery rhymes like Incy Wincy Spider, and Old Macdonald
  • Follow the child’s interests and play preferences.

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

Games and songs for speech/language:

  • Use speech sounds and language during games like peek-a-boo
  • Emphasise speech sounds in nursery rhymes like Incy Wincy Spider, and Old Macdonald
  • Follow the child’s interests and play preferences
  • Play games with pronouncing words in a funny way, to emphasise the right way of pronouncing words.

Repeat attempts at words correctly. Encourage children to fix speech errors by repeating what they say with clear, correct pronunciation.

Model clear speech pronunciation for children:

  • name and point at which part of the mouth a sound is made (see 44 sounds) for older children to see and hear
  • if you are concerned about a child’s speech development, you can consider consulting a speech-language pathologist.