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How can I help my 3-year-old’s speech?
Jamie Watertown
Since your daughter is only 3 and is doing well in other aspects of development, I wouldn’t worry because her speech is not clear. The important thing is that she is talking. Clarity of speech will come in time, probably without any therapy. At her age it is more important to encourage talking per se than perfect articulation. Some speech and language professionals worry that if we correct mispronunciations too often we discourage the child from talking or else induce a great deal of anxiety about talking. That you definitely don’t want.

Some of our speech sounds are made with lip and tongue movements that are visible. For example, it is easy to see how “b,” “f,” “m,” “p,” “v” and “w” are made. There are others like “d,” “n” and “t” that can be observed to some extent. And with “s” and “h” one can feel the breath coming out of the mouth.

But with sounds like “g,” “k,” “l,” “n,” “q,” “r” and “s” and most of the diphthongs (two consonants together like “ch” and “sh”), it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how they are made.

If your daughter mispronounces one or more of the visible sounds, occasionally have her look at your face and notice what you do with your mouth to make the sound. Something like “mama“ or “more” is a good way to begin. Exaggerate your own lip and mouth movements as you do this to give her plenty of opportunity to see what you’re doing. Encourage her to watch your mouth as you make the sound and then to do it herself. Many children will make a sound correctly on some words and consistently misarticulate it on others. Thus, if your daughter can say “socks” but says “I can’t thing that thong,” you can remind her that the beginning of “song” sounds just like the beginning of “socks.” See if she can use a sound she knows how to make in another word. Beginning sounds are easier to work with than middle or ending sounds.

Please don’t do this kind of exercise with your daughter unless you can do it without getting uptight and making her anxious about her language. Regardless of whether you do anything, she will probably correct most of her errors within a year. If not, you will want to take her to a speech and language specialist. Most military establishments have one as part of the base’s general medical program.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education