child not talking clearly

Is Your Child Not Talking Clearly? The Possible Reasons and Some Tricks to Start Helping Them Right Now

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Why can’t I understand my child?

Is your child not talking clearly? Don’t worry, you are not alone! At least 2.3% of school-aged children have a speech sound disorder, and some estimates say it might be as many as 24.6%. Some of these delays or disorder can be detected in the toddler and preschool years. In one study (that I dive into deeper later in the article), it was found that it’s typical for a 4-year-old to be understood by a stranger only half of the time. I somehow find that comforting!

Even if it is fairly normal that your toddler isn’t talking clearly, it can still be hard for both of you. If your child is trying to tell you something, but you can’t tell what they are saying, it may cause them to get upset. And if your toddler is upset, it might cause you to get frustrated too!

Read on , so we can get to the bottom of this and start figuring out some ways you can help your little one!

can't understand my toddler

What’s the reason I can’t understand my toddler’s speech?

There are several underlying reasons why your child is not talking clearly. Sometimes there isn’t a known reason, but oftentimes there is an underlying issue that might contribute to their speech.

  1. Your child might have a physical abnormality that is the reason your child is not talking clearly. This group includes children with cleft lip and/or palate and other orofacial differences.
  2. Hearing loss can cause a child’s speech to be difficult to understand. If you can’t undertand what your toddler is saying, it’s a great idea to get their hearing tested first.
  3. There are also a few types of disorders that are related to motor planning that make it hard for some children to speak clearly. In cases such as these, children’s brains have a hard time coordinating their muscles to say words clearly.
  4. Articulation and phonological disorders. These two types of speech sound disorders are very common and have no real underlying cause. Although, some children who are late talkers in general develop one of these disorders because they are generally late bloomers. (If you want more information on how to help late talkers, check out my post here.)

Once you understand the underlying cause for why you can’t understand your toddler’s speech, then it can be easier to troubleshoot. If your child has a known hearing loss or physical abnormality that relates to speech production, talk to your doctor about getting speech and language therapy right away. With both of those issues, it should be easy to get your child qualified for services.

Otherwise, you can get your child evaluated if you feel like they are definitely behind in speech sound development. (Check out the section below for speech sound development.)

child not talking clearly

What are typical speech milestones in babies and toddlers?

General Speech Acquisition

  • 2 Months: coos and makes little gurgling noises
  • 4 Months: begins to babble and tries to repeat sounds they hear
  • 6 Months: uses multiple vowels in a row (“ooh eee”) and starts using some consonants
  • 9 months: strings together lots of sounds (“babababa”)
  • 12 months: starts using simple words like “mama”, “dada”, and “uh-oh”
  • 18 months: uses several words, may not be accurate in how they sound
  • 2 years: puts a few words together to make short phrases, still not accurate in sounds
  • 3 years: carries on short conversation and knows tons of words
  • 4 years: tells stories with some detail
  • 5 years: speaks quite clearly so most people can understand what they are saying.

Check out this resource by the CDC for more information on speech development.

How Much You Can Understand Your Child

Another really great, recent study came out in 2021 and gives specific ages for how much a toddler should be understood in percentages. It’s a really helpful guide to decide if your child is within the normal range of talking clearly for their age. The study is specific for how much a stranger can understand, not you as the parent or caregiver.

PercentageSingle WordsShort Phrases
50%30-33 months32-35 months
75%47-51 months44-47 months
90%75-91 months60-63 months
This table is based on children that are at the 50th percentile.

Let me explain this table a little more. Basically, your child should be understood by someone that doesn’t know them very well about half of the time when they are about two and a half if they only use one word. If they use a short phrase, a stranger should understand them half of the time before age three.

Around age four, a stranger should be able to understand them when they use single words or short phrases about 75% of the time (or three out of every four words).

Between ages six and seven and a half they should be understood 90% of the time when they use one word. They should be 90% understood when they use short phrases by the time they are five.

Specific Sounds Children Should Be Able to Say

This is a simple table that covers what at what age your child should be able to say specific sounds. Girls and boys vary slightly, so there is a column for each gender. If your child isn’t able to say these sounds at the given age, it may be a big contributing factor to why your child is not talking clearly.

3 yearsd, m, b, h, p, wm, n, h, w, p, b
3 1/2 yearsn, k, g,t, d, k
4 yearsy, t, kw, twg
5 yearsth (“this”), l-y
6 yearsth (“thin”), sh, ch, -l, l blends, j-f, v, l-, tw, kw, l blends
7 yearsng, s, z, s blendsng, s, z, th (“thin”) , j, -l, s blends
8 yearsr and r blendsr and r blends
Check out this visual for a different way to think about these norms, known as the Iowa-Nebraska norms.

What is the difference between speech articulation and language?

Speech and language are often thought of as the same thing. However, if your child is struggling with one or both of these areas, it’s important to understand the differences.

Language is how we use and combine words (or symbols or signs) to communicate our wants, needs, and opinions. Language includes understanding what someone else is saying (receptive language) and communicating your own thoughts and ideas (expressive language). If you want more information on receptive vs expressive language, check out my post here.

Speech is the sounds we put together to form words. It includes articulation (using the parts of your mouth to make sounds), voice (using air and vocal folds to produce sound), and fluency (the rhythm in our voice).

For more information on the difference between speech and language, check out this article from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

Articulation disorder vs phonological disorder:

The two most common disorders that are prevalent in toddlers who are hard to understand are articulation disorders and phonological disorders.

Articulation disorders are when a child has a specific sound or sounds they cannot say. Most
often, a child with an articulation disorder says the sound wrong the same way every time. An example of this would be if a child consistently says /s/ wrong by always replacing it with /th/. It also might be true that a child replaces the /s/ sound with a distorted “s” sound, where the airflow comes from the sides of their mouth instead of through the front. Both of these examples are typical articulation errors.

Phonological disorders are when errors are in a pattern, and not just a specific sound that is
There are four types of patterns that fall under the umbrella of phonological

  • Omissions or deletions: Some children delete whole sounds in patterns. Often children delete the initial sound in words like saying “og” instead of “dog” or saying “oy” instead of “toy”. Another common error is final consonant deletion. An example of that would be saying “do” instead of “dog” or “cu” instead of “cup”. One more common omission is when children omit one consonant sound from a blend. A common example would be saying “pate” instead of “plate” or “top” instead of “stop”.
  • Substitutions: Substitutions are when a child replaces one kind of sound with another kind of sound. This is different than articulation, because there are usually several errors that fit into some sort of pattern. For instance, many toddlers have a phonological process called “fronting” where they say sounds in the front of their mouth that are usually made in the back of the mouth. This is when a child says /t/ instead of /k/ and /d/ instead of /g/.
  • Additions: Although this is a less common pattern, some children add sounds that are not supposed to be in words. An example might be if they say “puh-lay” instead of “play”.
  • Syllable-Level Errors: This is when children change the number of syllables in a word. Most often, children will delete weak syllables in a word. Instead of saying “elephant” they say “eh-phant”.

For more information, check out this article by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Ideas on how to improve toddler speech:

If you looked at the research about when to expect different speech and articulation milestones, you probably noticed it is actually very normal if your child is not talking clearly for a while. As long as a stranger understands most (about half) of what your child is saying by the time they are three, this can still be typical! So don’t worry, it’s not that weird that your child is hard to understand.

If you have a child not talking clearly though, it can be frustrating for both you and them! Even if your child might not qualify for formal speech-language therapy, there are still things you can do to help if you can’t understand your toddler’s speech. Check out a few tips to get you started:

  1. Slowly repeat back what your child said incorrectly in the correct way. If you know what your child is saying (or if you have a good guess), just say back what they said to you. For example, if your child says, “I tant fine my tup,” but you know they mean “I can’t find my cup,” say “You can’t find your cup? I’ll help you find your cup.” This simple fix helps them hear the sounds said correctly.
  2. If you notice there is a certain sound they can’t say (like the “k” sound) then when you hear them say it wrong, you can repeat back the word with a big emphasis on the error sound. So, if they say “tat” and mean “cat”, say “KKKKat,” holding out the k sound longer and a little louder. Or if your child commonly forgets to say the last sound in a word (a common problem) then emphasize the last sound in the word.
  3. If you don’t know what they are saying, then ask if they can point to what they are talking about. Once you figure out what they are wanting/needing, repeat back to them the word they could have used. “Oh, you wanted a cracker. Cracker.” And then give them the cracker.
  4. If you have an idea of what they might be saying, offer a few suggestions. “Are you saying this or that?” Once you solve the mystery, say the word or words they were trying to say. This helps them learn how to speak more clearly.

If you have any other questions about speech or language, drop them in the comments below! I’d love to help!

2 thoughts on “Is Your Child Not Talking Clearly? The Possible Reasons and Some Tricks to Start Helping Them Right Now”

  1. Very informative and great to have all that information more clearly explained then what we often can have as parents from the professionals and doctors!

  2. Pingback: The Complete Guide for a Toddler Speech Evaluation - Talk 2 Me Mama

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