When Saying “Wabbit” Is Not Ok

Few things are as fantastic as hearing your child say their first word. You never know what it’s going to be or which day it will be said, and sometimes it might even be hard to know for sure if what comes out is an actual word! That’s because even though the child knows the adult word, (e.g., “car”), their speech sound system still needs to mature, so it might come out sounding close to the adult word but not the exact pronunciation (e.g., “ta” for “car”).

Children’s speech sound systems develop from birth until kids are around 8 years old. By this age it is expected that children say each sound in their native language with correct pronunciation. Until this time speech sound errors occur and this is normal. When they are little these errors can be so cute! My 2 year old son tells me he needs a “nuggle” (he means “snuggle”) and my 4 year old likes to give “sums up” (she means “thumbs up”). Yet, as adorable as these words are, as a speech-language pathologist I expect my kids to say these words correctly at certain ages.

In this post I want to share a bit of information about typical speech development to help families understand what is normal and when to seek help.

Why do kids do this?

Speech sound production is a complex process that involves specific motor planning, coordination, and movement of different articulators (such as the jaw, lips, teeth, tongue, palate, cheeks, and voice). A child needs to make precise movements to say each individual speech sound, as well as blend these movements together to say all the sounds that make up a word. If they do this correctly it produces clear speech.

When children are young and learning to talk their anatomy and neurological system is still maturing so they are unable to make the precise movements necessary for clear speech.  As a result, they make speech sound errors, which come across as modified versions of the correct adult words.

Phonological processes and types of speech errors

Phonological processes are what speech-language pathologists call these speech sound errors that naturally occur in children’s typical speech development. For example, the phonological process known as gliding is when a child replaces an /r/ or /l/ sound with a /w/ or /y/ sound. Gliding accounts for the reason some children say “wabbit” for “rabbit”.

There are several typical phonological processes that children produce as they learn to talk, which account for the types of speech errors they make. As children get older they are expected to slowly ‘out grow’ their phonological processes one by one.

The amount of errors and intelligibility

The amount of errors a child makes contributes to their overall clarity, also known as intelligibility. When children are young they make lots of speech errors, so it is normal for adults to sometimes have trouble understanding them. As children get older, and errors become fewer, their clarity increases. It is expected that by age 3, children should be understood around 75% of the time by adults who are unfamiliar to them.

Wide range of normal for each sound

There are 44 speech sounds in the English language and each one has a specific age range for when a child is expected to make the sound correctly. Some of the speech sounds, which are more simplistic to produce, such as the /p/ sound, are expected to be mastered a little earlier (by age 2-3 years). However, some of the more complex speech sounds, such as the /z/ sound, aren’t expected to be mastered until later and with a wider range of normal (by age 3 to 7 years).

As with many things, each child will develop speech at their own pace. However, with such a wide range of normal for some of the speech sounds, it may be confusing for some parents as to why one of their children spoke clearly early on, but another takes a little longer. Being aware of the speech milestones is the first step in knowing when to worry, when not to and when to seek help.

Click here to access the Speech Sound Milestone Chart

How to help your child

Have a look at the speech sound milestone chart provided in this post.  If your child is not meeting the milestone for one or more of the speech sounds you should contact a local speech-language pathologist for an assessment.  In the meantime you can do a few simple things at home:

1. Be face-to-face when speaking with your child so they can watch the way you say words.

2. Do not rush your child. Give them all the time they need to communicate their message to you. This shows them you care about what they say not how they say it.

3. If you understand what their message is, but they make speech errors, use a method called recasting. This is where the adult repeats what the child has said with correct speech, then models the target word correctly a few more times in a natural way. Here is an example of recasting for the word car:

Child: “I see the tar

Adult: “I see the car too”. That is a fast car. Look, there is another car

Remember, the child does not have to imitate you back. You are just providing a good, clear model that does not disrupt the flow of communication.

4. If you don’t understand what the child has said help them use other means to get their message across, like asking them to show you or drawing a picture. Getting them to continue repeating words they are having trouble saying is generally frustrating for both parent and child.

Read the article in Pink and Blue Magazine


American Speech and Hearing Association (n.d.). Speech sound disorders: Articulation and phonological processes. Retrieved online on October 9, 2015 at http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/SpeechSoundDisorders/

Daymut, J. (2009). Types of articulation errors – A simple guide. Retrieved online on October 9, 2015 at http://www.superduperinc.com/handouts/pdf/201_TypesofArticulationErrors.pdf

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