"My child doesn't speak clearly - are they just lazy?"
Updated: May 21
This is one of the most common questions I get asked as a speech and language therapist when working with children with speech clarity difficulties.
Speaking comes so naturally to adults - we do it without thinking! So we can forget just how complicated speaking can be! I was reminded of this a few years ago.....
Learning a New Sound
I used to live in Indonesia, and was required to roll a 'rrrr’ every single time there was a 'r' in an Indonesian word. This was a proper 'rrrr' as well, not just a sloppy slap of my tongue against my alveolar ridge (the hard fleshy ridge behind your top teeth). No, if I didn't roll my 'rrrr' with great flourish each time, I just wouldn't be understood!
Each step took physical and concentrated effort:
First, I had to teach myself how to make that 'rrrr' sound – what bit of my tongue to hold up high in my mouth- and which bit of my tongue to relax as I blew air over it.
Then, with repeated practice, I taught myself to roll my 'rrrr' the moment my mind told my mouth to do it!
Finally, I needed to throw in my new ‘rrrr' when I was talking. This took quite a bit of conscious thought and effort!
It helped that, as a new language learner, I spoke slowly. This meant I could prepare myself for the next 'rrrr' that was coming. I had to think about what I was saying (language) and how I was saying it (speech).
After a while I didn't need to think about it anymore. This meant my ‘new sound’ of 'rrrrrr' was now 'in place.'
It’s the same for children!
They have to lay down new pathways from their brain to their speech muscles in order to co-ordinate the different movements of their mouth, lips and teeth - just to say a single sound!
It’s even harder when they have to move from one sound to another - when speaking!
This is why children can often say the sound on it’s own. e.g. ‘k’ - but find it difficult when saying the sound within a phrase. E.g. "k- k-k- I saw a dat!"
More fine motor skill and dexterity is required for speech, than for handwriting!
Adults spend a lot of time teaching children how to write neatly. My daughter was shown how to hold a pen and make marks when she was three year old. Primary school children are still being told to focus on neat, legible handwriting when aged seven.
In fact, nearly all adult speech sounds should be in place by the time a child is seven years old. That's because not every speech sound is easy to learn!
Some sounds are more difficult than others
Most 4 year old's can say a ‘t’ but have difficulty when first saying a ‘s’ sound.
Tap your tongue quickly at the ridge behind your top teeth. That's how to make a 't' sound.
Now, hold the edges of your tongue against the ridges behind your teeth at the side of your mouth, slightly roll the middle of your tongue to make a channel, and dip the tip of the tongue down to allow escape of air as you hold these movements and blow gently. That's how to make a 's' sound
Which seems more complex?
Your child is NOT lazy if they have speech clarity issues
Your child is just on one of the earlier steps to learn their 'new sound' because it is not 'in place' yet.
Speech is a complicated skill which requires a series of memorised movements of a number of different structures of the face. These movements need to be made automatically, whilst the speaker's mental focus is on using language to express their thoughts and ideas!
Your child is just focusing on WHAT they want to tell you!
Lisa Taylor-Jones is a Speech and Language Therapist and the founder of Step Up Speech and Language Ltd. She provides a speech and language therapy service to Plymouth primary schools to close the gap for their most vulnerable children. She also runs early years programmes to ensure children have 'school ready' skills by the time they start year 1. She takes on private cases and delivers therapy to children in Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall.