The Mechanics of Speech Development and thus, Speech Comprehension

I am not an expert on speech and language pathology, at least not in the trained, professional sense. I am however an expert on the other side, as a result of intensive speech therapy, my current auditory verbal therapy training, and strong speech reading skills. I also have experience as a mother of three children witnessing their own speech development. I also have an understanding of infant and child development which go hand in hand with speech and language development.

I want to try to explain this from the lay person perspective as one who lived it, to another lay person, whose child may be going to speech therapy, or may be behind, and you think he or she needs evaluation. If you can understand and even appreciate how much work it is from birth to pre- teen, the complexity of speech, and ultimately language; then perhaps it will be easier to help your child in this area, to know when to intervene.

So for any speech and language pathologists, audiologists, auditory verbal therapists :if there is any inaccuracy, or anything that requires correction or further explanation, please contact me at

As you know, my youngest is two (28 months if you want to be specific), and is currently learning new words daily. He has probably a grand total of 100 known words, and is beginning to speak more clearly. His receptive language acquisition is high. His understanding of body language, and facial expression is strong too. He is, with my experience with his siblings a little behind in speech. However, if we are able to get him evaluated I would expect we would be told he is on target. I am not overly worried, because of my own experience with speech acquisition, and with my current auditory verbal therapy, I have a clear picture of what is happening inside that adorable head of his, as he babbles and talks through the day.

At the Christmas party the other evening, I explained a little about the mechanics of speech acquisition as I understand it. Speech is made up of vowels and consonants, put together in a variety of ways to form words, which then get grouped together to form sentences. Then the words are associated with objects, actions, peoples, and places. Somehow in addition to learning how to say the sounds that make up the words, they must learn the association of those words, and then eventually compile into an understandable sentence. On top of that, body language, facial expression, and other non verbal communication is learned too. Speech comprehension is an inherent part of language acquisition for we must comprehend what we hear in order to reproduce it, and also in order to be active participants in the world around us.

As babies we hear our parents and family talk and chatter, yet somehow we learn to babble, and make sounds. Sounds like oo, ah, mm, da, ma, and so on. Deaf babies can make sounds, but generally because they figure out they can do something with that cute mouth besides cry and scream. Depending on the level of hearing, they might pick up some sounds and mimic them. Mimicking is key to speech development, as it shows what they can hear and see, which is why parents are encouraged to read, talk, and be up close early on with their babies. It is why we repeat simple words often like mama, dada, milk, more, and so on. As babies get older they start to parrot back what they hear, which is also very important in speech development.

Ling sounds are sounds based on the range of hearing frequencies. Vowels and consonants are grouped into six families of sounds if you will, and the main sounds are oo, ah, mm, ss, sh, ee. The sounds that are grouped under these are within the same frequency range, which is why they are often mixed up. For example, mm and nn are in the same group, as are d,p,b. Therefore, when a child enters speech therapy they are assessed for the sounds they can make, words they have learned, and then the gaps are filled in. For me, I literally started at ground zero, and went through the alphabet and learned every sound independently and as I got older learned how to group them together to make words. Largely, this is phonetic training, and thus the added benefit, was reading development. Children are shown how to make those sounds, mimicking and parroting the therapist. For a Deaf child like me, when a sound was not in my range of hearing, even with hearing aids, like a,sh,f, th, ph,ch it was difficult to master as I could not hear them. I was shown how to move my mouth, tongue placement, jaw movements, felt vibrations on the throat and so on.

As parents, we play a crucial role in this by talking to our children, reading to them, and if brave, singing to them. We repeat back what we hear them say, thus validating the effort, the correct sound made, and ultimately the correct word. Talking about our daily lives, looking at picture books, using teachable moments while out and about, provide word association opportunities. Playing with our children does the same, as we talk about the colours of their cars or blocks, the shapes of the blocks, the sizes of them and so on. Even seemingly unimportant nonsensical sounds like vroom is important. Giving the sounds animals make while playing with hand puppets and singing “Old MacDonald”, is important as well. The more we interact with our children and provide the language, the vocabulary, the sounds, and facial and body language, the more we are teaching them a very crucial part of growing up. Communication.

When you teach those words, take a moment to think about the sounds that make those words, how they are made, and how they are put together. Think about tongue placement, where the sound comes from, is it nasal or from the back of your throat, is it hard or soft, long or short? And so on. When you are teaching your child to read by breaking down the words into manageable syllables, or segments, you are essentially breaking down those words into the sounds needed. Phonetic teaching is important in speech development, and correspondingly, in reading development.

It sounds complicated and hard, I am sure you are thinking. It is. Having lived it as a child, cognizant of what I was being taught, and now as an adult, being taught to listen, interpret, comprehend those sounds, and thus correctly comprehend the words I hear, and then sentences without lipreading, I totally get it. I get why some choose to stay quiet and frustrate and worry their parents. I get those temper tantrums, meltdowns as my children tried to tell me something seemingly very important to them during their formative years. I see my son now, going along and I am learning right with him, and also reinforcing it for him. It is quite the process, and as a Deaf parent, a challenging one.

So how might we ease that transition and development? The simple answer is, teach them signs as early as four months of age, stick with it, as some take a while (mine took 15 months) and others take to it like ducks to water. Teaching signs gives a physical way to say the words, while they process and learn to make those words. It eases the frustration levels, and during so many developmental leaps, growth spurts, teething, separation anxiety and so on, this really helps us as parents help them through this. All of it is scary enough for them, and with no ability to give the words, it is no wonder they melt down into a puddle of heart wrenching tears and screams for what seems like an eternity while we stand by helplessly. Teaching sign language has been proven to ease those frustrations, and even increase or speed up speech development. It benefits hearing and deaf children, even those with hearing aids or cochlear implants. All avenues of communication should be taught, so why make it harder on them by not using sign language?

A friend who is a speech and language pathologist gave me the following rationale for using sign language early. The primary reason why babies will sign before they talk is because speech requires intricate, fine motor movements, which are slower to develop. Sign language, particularly baby signs, requires gross motor movements, which are easier for babies to produce. Babies begin understanding simple language concepts around 4-6 months, and will start using some simple signs around 8 months (these are averages). First words generally come around 12 months, due to the difficulty associated with producing the speech sounds.

Every baby develops at their own rate, and how quickly they progress can never be predicted. Some are prodigies and pick up three or four languages at once, soaking it up, especially in a multi-linguistic home. Others just quietly go along, babbling here and there, preferring to work on gross motor skills, and fine motor skills, like my son. Still more simply say nothing, and then out of the blue speak a full paragraph, leaving their parents stunned in disbelief after feeling like there is something wrong with their child. Of course, there are those where there ARE problems, like autism or hearing losses, or speech apraxia. Intervention must then occur, and parents must do everything in their power to support, encourage, and help their child achieve whatever level of communication is available to them, speech, signing, or a communication board.

So if you think your child is behind, try not to compare to other children that are the same age, because what happens inside these homes is different from yours. Every child is unique, and they develop in their own ways. If in doubt, it never ever hurts to get your child evaluated, because then you know. Check their hearing, check for autism if you see other signs, check for physical reasons for speech difficulties, and if your child has no physiological reason why he or she is delayed, involve a speech and language pathologist. Or if it is determined there is no delay, and they are in fact on target, relax and keep doing what you’ve been doing, and enjoy the process. Enjoy it regardless, for it truly is a miracle, a fascinating process, and so much fun to watch.

A friend says: ” as a SLP I am biased toward having kids evaluated sooner rather than later. If the eval shows the child does not have a true speech or language disorder, than the parent will have the peace of mind in taking the wait and see approach. However, if there is a problem, it is always better to start intervention early. It is so much easier to get the child on track if they receive therapy early, before dysfunctional patterns and/or behaviors develop. It’s easier to learn the correct way to say/do something the first time around than to re-learn it later. The goal of early intervention (birth-3 years) is to get the child up to age level before she/he starts school. Sometimes children receive their first evaluation when they start school, and by then they are already behind their peers. I would encourage parents to talk to their pediatrician if they have any concern about their child’s development (speech or otherwise).”

If your child does have a hearing loss, autism, or speech apraxia, then ask questions, research different methods, find the right professionals to help you. Support is out there, in more places than you think. And never ever think you failed your child, because you haven’t. You give your child the most important thing they need, unconditional love, unwavering faith, and steadfast support. Then, learn with them, and enjoy their successes, like you would have anyway, for those achievements are just as meaningful.

A Baby’s Language Development: Turn Taking

On a side note, also have closed captioning or subtitles on when watching tv or movies, because it gives them visual clues to what they are hearing, and also increases reading development. My older two children have proven it works, as both at age six were reading chapter books.

This graph shows where speech sounds fall on the audiogram.


See part two 🙂


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