Talking: What to expect when
As your child moves into the elementary school years, he’ll make great strides in refining pronunciation, sentence structure, and word use. His attention span for listening and his memory for complex directions will increase noticeably as well. Six- to 8-year-olds delight in explaining experiences in great detail, cohesively and logically, and with much elaboration. This means you may hear more than you ever wanted to know about your child’s adventures with his Gameboy. “Of course, some children are less talkative than others, and in many cases temperament has a lot to do with that,” says Desmond Kelly, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who works with children with learning and language difficulties at the All Kinds of Minds Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Some children are just naturally more reserved or quieter than others.”
What you’ll hear
Your child should have a firm grasp of language by now. Some things to listen for:
Pronunciation: Some children this age still mangle three- or four-syllable words — “manimal” for “animal” or “pasghetti” for “spaghetti,” for instance — and that’s nothing to worry about. Some kids still struggle with a couple of tricky consonant sounds, such as substituting w for r as in “wabbit” instead of “rabbit,” or saying f instead of th as in “baf” instead of “bath.” Those few exceptions aside, your grade-schooler’s speech should definitely be understandable now. Most experts agree that a child should have the ability to pronounce most sounds by age 7 or 8.
Lisping: Lisping is a term that describes the way a child mispronounces words. Typically, it refers to the s sound being produced like a th sound. “My sister is seven” becomes “My thithter ith theven.” While the s is normally produced with the tongue behind the top teeth, a child who lisps pushes the tongue out. If your child’s s sounds this way and he’s only 6, don’t worry. Many children do it, and most will outgrow it with no intervention by age 7. If your child is 7, though, you should get professional help, since a lisp is a hard habit to lose as a child gets older.
Stuttering: Children tend to stutter when they’re upset, uncomfortable, angry, or even just plain excited. If your child is stuttering only at these times, and the stuttering is mild, don’t rush to get him evaluated. Stumbling over words is different from a true stuttering problem, which affects only 5 percent of children and usually emerges between ages 5 and 7.
What you can do
Reading to — and with — your child is a great way to boost his language skills. Books help a child add words to his vocabulary and make sense of grammar, says Kelly. Likewise, simply talking with your child helps. Lots of parents find mealtimes and bedtimes are a great chance for talking. It may be the only time in a busy day when you have a chance to chat with and really listen to your kids.
When your child does stumble over long words, resist the urge to correct his speech. Instead, model the right pronunciation of these tongue twisters when it’s your turn to talk. This approach is a kinder, gentler way of getting your point across. For instance, say: “Yes, we’re having spaghetti for dinner” instead of “It’s ‘spaghetti,’ not ‘pasghetti!'”
You can also take steps at home to help a child who stutters. Keep your voice soft and relaxed, your speech slow — think Mr. Rogers. Don’t tell your child to slow down, though, just let him follow your lead. Maintain eye contact, smile, and be patient. If you turn away and act hurried, your child will feel pressure to “get it out,” and this will only make his stuttering worse. Allow your child to express his frustration or embarrassment. He may say: “The words get stuck in my throat and they can’t get out.” Acknowledge his feelings by saying: “I understand how frustrating that must be for you.”
If your child lisps, pop a straw in his drinks; this kind of sucking motion promotes good oral-motor strength, which is important in language development. Encourage play activities that improve oral-motor strength. Have your child blow into a party horn that has a small, round mouthpiece. This is a good exercise because the effort needed to make a solid sound also strengthens the lips and cheek muscles, and tends to push the tongue back in. Blowing bubbles is another option. Or have your child look in a mirror and practice putting his teeth together while he makes an s sound. This exercise can help him remember to keep his tongue behind his teeth. If he gets frustrated or upset practicing this routine, let it go — you don’t want to make him self-conscious about something he’ll probably outgrow on his own. Finally, encourage him to blow his nose — stuffy nasal passages are sometimes the culprit behind a lisp.
What to watch out for
If your child says few words, doesn’t spontaneously initiate conversation, or doesn’t seem interested in talking with peers, you should seek expert advice, says Kelly.
If your child has difficulty pronouncing many sounds, he may also have reading, comprehension, and spelling problems if the situation isn’t addressed soon. Seek professional help — don’t wait for someone at his school to contact you about his difficulties. In some cases, there may be a physical component to your child’s speech difficulties. Some tip-offs that he may not outgrow his pronunciation problems include drooling when he mispronounces words, and difficulty eating or swallowing. And if you have any concerns that your child may have a speech delay due to hearing problems, don’t hesitate to seek help.
If your child is truly stuttering (and not just stumbling over words occasionally), he may drag out the first sound in a word, saying “ssssoda,” or repeat the sound, as in “Sh-sh-she’s nice!” He may also open his mouth to say something, and then get stuck before any sound comes out. Along with this “blocking,” you may notice tension in his jaw or cheeks, or he may look away or clench his fist, blink repeatedly, grimace, or stomp his foot from the tension of trying to get the words out. If these signs are present, talk with his teacher. His school can provide a free screening with a speech therapist. Or talk with his pediatrician, who can refer you to a private speech-language pathologist for an evaluation.
If your child is 7 or 8 and is still lisping, also get some professional help. You could talk with his school’s speech therapist — although most schools won’t treat a lisp, which is considered a cosmetic concern rather than an educational concern. Or, again, ask his doctor to refer you to a speech-language pathologist for an evaluation.
As your child gets older, he’ll join sentences to form coherent, descriptive thoughts and stories that rarely leave listeners confused. He’ll also master word relationships such as synonyms and antonyms, and be able to pronounce multisyllabic words correctly, once he’s had the chance to practice a new word a few times. He’ll also understand and have fun using idioms like “pain in the neck” and “out of your mind.” In essence, a child’s language from age 9 on mirrors an adult’s speech, just with a bit more simplicity and often more directness. From now on, the challenge is to keep your child talking to you. This way, by the time he’s a teenager, it will be a hard habit to break.