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Speech and sound awareness

Why it’s important

Children develop speech sound gradually over many years.  They follow an individual path in speech sound development based on their life experiences. For example, children learning two languages will learn two sets of speech sounds.

How children develop speech and sound awareness skills

Children develop clear speech in quiet language stimulating environments. They rely on listening and visual skills to follow lip patterns and match their own speech to the speech they hear.

Babies engage in vocal play , for example, babbling and cooing.  They rely on adults in their environment to teach the basics of conversational rules, for example turn-taking and imitation, which helps them understand speech sound details.

Children make common errors at various ages. Older children with delayed speech may continue to make errors typical in younger children’s speech.

Phonological awareness

Children develop awareness that language consists of words, syllables and sounds.  A child must be able to identify and manipulate sounds, syllables and words to develop strong foundations for reading and spelling.  Manipulating sounds includes deleting, adding, substituting or reversing the order of syllables or sounds.

For example:

“Say ‘can.’ Now say it without the /k/. Say can with /m/ instead of /k/”

Some children with phonological awareness difficulties may experience speech sound difficulties due to poor sound discrimination skills.

Strategies and tips to help build speech and sound awareness skills

Avoid asking children to say something ‘properly’

Concentrate on what your child says. Instead of correcting, give your child good speech models. For example, if your child says ‘I drawed a tat’, accept it by saying ‘that’s a nice cat’ or ‘it’s a fluffy cat’, emphasising the word ‘cat’. This shows you’re listening and giving the child the correct ‘speech model’.

Stop and wait

Give your child space to have a go and see if they repeat it on their own.  Many children will but it’s important they do not feel forced to repeat the word.

Ask your child to show you

If you have difficulties understanding what your child says, ask them to ‘show you’ what they’re talking about. Encourage them to point or gesture alongside what they say.

Make an effort to find out what the child says

Do not ignore them because you don’t understand, or pretend to understand. Children need motivation to make them self understood.

Build your child’s self-esteem

Repeat back the parts of their speech that you understand. This shows them that they have had some success and may encourage them to tell you more. Give praise for other things your child does well.

What to expect at each age milestone

Choose the age range below to find out how children develop their speech and sound awareness skills. You’ll also find suggested activities that will help your child/a child you’re teaching/caring for to develop their skills.

 

What to expect

Babies experiment with a variety of vocalizations including squeals, growls, yells, and the production of ‘raspberries.’

At around 6 months babies start babbling using the same sound, for example, ‘ba ba ba’, ‘ma ma ma’, ‘da da da’. They progress to a mix of different sounds and use adult-like intonation so that their utterances sound like real questions or exclamations.

Activities that help develop their skills

Babbling

Sit the child on your lap, facing you and make babbling noises (see above). Encourage your child to copy. If the child responds with a noise, repeat it which often encourages more sound making. It’s also good practice for conversations later.

Play ‘boo’

Hide your face in your hands, uncover it and say “boo!” Encourage your child to copy you.

Make appropriate noises during play

For example, with toy animals, cars and trains. Encourage the child to join in and copy you saying ‘bang’ ‘broom broom’ ‘moo.’

 

 

What to expect

Children start to say their first words but hese early words may not become clear for some time.  Simple words and sounds usually consist of only a consonant and vowel, or with the consonant and vowel repeated, for example,’mama, dada, no, tea, wowwow, byebye.’

It’s common for children to miss consonants at the ends of words. Because of the limited range of speech sounds, many words may appear similar, for example, ‘da’ may be used for ‘that’, ‘daddy’, ‘cat’ and ‘car.’

At this age, developing a child’s listening skills will help them to focus their attention on specific sounds so they develop speech sounds when they’re ready.

Activities that help develop their skills

Go games

Your child must wait until they hear ‘go’ before they respond.

Create recordings of familiar sounds

Encourage your child to match the sound to the correct object/picture.

Musical instruments

Give your child 3 instruments and hide identical instruments behind a screen. See if your child can match the noise they hear to the instrument in front of them.

 

 

What to expect

At this age children lack consistency in their speech sounds. They begin to develop sounds that include  the letters p, m, h, n, w and b.

Activities that help develop their skills

Make noises during play

In play with animal toys or pictures, encourage the use of animal noises, for example, ‘moo’, ‘baa’, ‘miaow.’

You can also make noises for vehicles, for example ‘brum, brum’ and ‘nee naw’ for a siren.

Download our animal noises activity sheet and encourage your child to match the animal picture on the sheet with the animal noise you make.

Encourage sounds during household activities

Ask the child to listen to noises made during certain activities and try to reproduce these. The could include:

  • hoover  (v-v-v)
  • sink or bath plug (glug, glug, glug)
  • quiet (sh…sh…sh)
  • bouncy ball (b-b-b).

 

What to expect

Children learn a wide range of sounds at around age 3 which include  m, n, h, p, ng, w, d, t, y, b, g, and k.  Some children use these sounds before this age. It can vary as to which of these early sounds they learn first.

At around 3.5 years, children begin to use the speech sound ‘f’.

What this may look like at age 3

Sound Initial position Middle position Final position
m mine hammer arm
n no honey man
h hair
p pear happy cup
ng ring
w walk flower
d dog ladder mud
t tap butter sit
y yes yoyo
b big baby club
g go tiger egg
k car pocket look

What this may look like at age 3.5 years

Sound Initial position Middle position Final position
f fire telephone rough

Awareness of sounds

At 3 years old, children can usually:

  • recite familiar rhymes, for example, ‘Jack and Jill’
  • produce rhyme by pattern, for example, give the word ‘bat’ as a rhyming word for ‘cat’
  • recognise alliteration (words beginning with the same first sound), for example, ‘blue butterfly.’

Activities that help develop their skills

Share nursery rhymes and simple poems

Emphasise the rhyming words and use intonation and actions to keep the child’s interest.

Watch the video below for nursery rhyme ideas:

Play matching rhyme games

For example, ‘Slug in a Jug.’ You can also find pictures of rhyming words online.  You can also use the pictures in these games for other activities.

Recognising rhyme

Play a pairs game where the child has to find two pictures that rhyme.  Start with a small number of pictures, for example 4 or 6 then build up.

Rhyming odd one out

Show the child 4 pictures (3 of them rhyme, the other doesn’t). Ask the child to identify which word does not rhyme, for example, cat/hat/big/sat.

Matching rhyme

Show the child 3 to 4 pictures. Ask them to identify which picture rhymes with the target word. For example, if this target word is hat, ask the child which one of word rhymes out of big/dog/cat/man.

 

 

What to expect

Age Sound Initial position Middle position Final position Substitution used when making errors Example
4 years l lizard yellow ball y ‘light’ becomes ‘yight’
sh ship pushing fish t / s ‘shop’ becomes ‘top’
ch chair kitchen catch t / s ‘chair’ becomes ‘tair’
4.5 years s soap racing grass t / d ‘sun’ becomes ‘tun’
z zebra scissors nose d ‘zip’ becomes ‘dip’
j jump soldier bridge d ‘jump’ becomes ‘dump’
5 years r rabbit orange w ‘rain’ becomes ‘wain’

Awareness of sounds

Children’s awareness of sounds within words develops at this age.  These are crucial pre-literacy skills.

They’ll also:

  • recognise that two words rhyme
  • suggest their own rhyming words, for example, tell me a word that rhymes with ‘bag’.  These rhyming words may be nonsense words
  • segment syllables and know that the word ‘happy’ has 2 parts
  • count the number of syllables in words. 50% of 4 year olds can do this, 90% of 5 year olds can do it
  • learn to count single sounds (phonemes) within words, for example, know that ‘cat’ contains 3 sounds, ‘c-a-t.’ Less than 50% of 5 year olds can do this)

Activities that help develop their skills

See the above activities for the 2 to 3 years age range. When playing rhyme games,  use pictures without the words underneath. This will encourage the child to think of the sounds in the words instead of relying on written word patterns.

Syllable clapping and posting

Use musical instruments to start with. Bang out one beat and ask the child how many you did. Repeat for 3, 2 and 4 beats then alternate to see if the child can tell you how many.

Syllable pictures

Place pictures face down on the table. Take it in turns to pick up a picture and clap or drum the number of syllables in the word, for example ‘butt-er-fly’. The child may then post the picture into a labelled box or bag corresponding to the number of claps.

The child may need support to get it right. You can clap along with them, or you can clap and they can count the number of claps. You can also use a syllable clapping board to help the child count the number of syllables in a word.

Counting single sounds

Use a different movement to count syllables, for example stamping for individual sounds so that the child does not get confused.  Start with words with two sounds, for example, p-ea, b-ow, c-ar, and stamp these out. Give the child a small reward for each sound they identify, for example, a lego brick for a tower, or a stamp on a chart.

Remember the child identifies the number of sounds regardless of their spelling at this stage.  Move on to words containing 3 sounds, for example, ‘sh-ar-k’ and 4 sounds, for example. ‘p-o-n-y’.

 

What to expect

At age 6 children learn the ‘v’ sound but may produce this as ‘b’ or ‘d’, for example, van becomes ban’.  They are learn consonant blends but may replace these with a single consonant, for example, ‘aeroplane’ becomes ‘aerobane’ or , ‘splash’ becomes ‘pash’ or ‘spash’.

Age Sound Initial position Middle position Final position Substitution used when making errors Example
6 years v consonant blends, for example, 2 consonants together  van seven stove v / d ‘van’ becomes ‘ban’
splash basket ask
tree library
blue aeroplane

Awareness of sounds

Children have most of their pre-literacy skills and can:

  • match initial consonants in words, for example, recognise that ‘ship’ and ‘shop’ begin with the same first sound
  • blend 2 to 3 phonemes to form words and can recognise that the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ make the word ‘cat’
  • count single sounds (phonemes) within words.70% of 6 year olds can do this
  • divide words by first consonant or blend, for example split ‘broom’ into /br/   /oom/

At around 7 years, children will begin to:

  • segment 3 to 4 phonemes within words
  • spell phonetically
  • engage in ‘sound play’

For example if you ask them to:

  • delete syllables from words, for example ‘say butterfly’ without saying ‘fly’, they’ll be able to say ‘butter’
  • delete sounds from words,  for example, say ‘cat’ without saying the ‘t’ sound, they’ll be able to say ‘ca’
  • change the sounds in words, for example, ‘say ‘top’.  Now change the ‘t’ to a ‘h’, they’ll be able to say ‘hop.’

Activities that help develop their skills

Match initial consonants

Read the child a list of 3 to 4 words and ask them to identify which word began with the target sound, for example ‘which word begins with /b/? hat, dog, ball, cup?

Show them pictures of objects that begin with two different initial sounds. See if the child can sort them into  things that begin with ‘b’ and things that begin with ‘s’.  You could post the pictures into a ‘b’ box and a ‘s’ box.

Compound word pairs

You’ll need a set of pictures that make up a variety of compound words, for example:

  • sun-glasses
  • hair-brush
  • tooth-brush
  • lady-bird
  • pan-cake.

Play a pairs game with the cards.  Start with all of the cards face down on the table.  Take it in turns to pick up 2 cards. Whoever can combine the words to form one longer word wins the pair. For example, sun + glasses can become ‘sunglasses’.

The child may need you to read out the words together from the pictures they chose to identify if they can go together.

Syllable deleting

Encourage the child to ‘play’ with syllables in words, for example can you say ‘upstairs’ without the ‘up.’

Syllable adding

Encourages a child’s ability to manipulate syllables, for example, can you add ‘room’ to ‘bed?’

Syllable reversing

Give the child a word with syllables in the wrong order, for example, boardcup. Then ask child what they think the word was before.

Syllable substituting

Say ‘upstairs’ then replace  ‘up’ with ‘down’. Ask the child what new word they have?

 

 

What to expect

Age Sound Initial position Middle position Final position Substitution used when making errors Example
8 years th (voiced) this brother with v ‘brother’ becomes ‘brover’
8.5 years th (voiceless) thumb nothing mouth f / d ‘thin’ becomes ‘fin’

 

Awareness of sounds

Children should now have well established phonological awareness skills.  They’ll use these skills when spelling to help them ‘sound out’ new words.  They may also play with the sounds in words and use ‘pig latin. This is when the first sound of a word moves to the end of the word and ‘ay’ is added to it. For example ‘pig’ is changed to ‘ig-pay.’

Activities that help develop their skills

Playing with sounds in words

Play games where you delete, add or substitute sounds in words. Give a small reward for each go. For example, the child can take turns at a game or add a piece to a lego model following each turn.

You can:

  • delete initial sounds in words, for example, ‘can you say /fan/ without the /f/’
  • delete final sounds in words, for example, ‘can you say /red/ without the /d/’
  • substitute initial sounds in words, for example, ‘can you say /sent/ with a /w/ instead of a /s/’
  • substitute final sounds in words, for example, ‘can you say /big/ with a /n/ instead of a /g/’

 

 

What to expect

9 years

Children usually correct most sound substitutions.

11 to 15+ years

Young people should now be able to produce all the speech sounds when talking, and their speech should be clear.

All ages in this range

Some substitutions, for example, ‘f’ for ‘th’, are acceptable in regional accents and we do not consider these as speech defects or speech immaturities. They only become a problem if the child begins to substitute ‘f’ for ‘th’ when writing.

If you have concerns about your child’s speech sound production or phonological awareness, please see the activities for the earlier age ranges.

Speech activities for any age and target sound

 

Check the relevant age milestones for your child above to find out what to expect at. Learning the speech sounds of English is a gradual process, and there can be variation between children in the order they develop specific sounds.

Teach your child to listen. Practice with environmental sounds (everyday sounds we hear around us), or with sounds made by musical instruments.

If you have concerns about your child’s production of a particular speech sound, you can try the listening games below.

Listening games to practice with the child

Sound matching

Choose two sets of matching noisemakers. Start with 3 to 4 very different sounds, for example, a shaker, a drum, some bells and a whistle. Let the child play with the noisemakers and talk about them.

Then, place a screen between you. Take turns to make a noise while the other person finds the matching noisemaker. If the child find this too easy, add more noisemakers or try a sequence of 2 or 3 sounds.  The child must play the matching noisemakers in the right order.

Gradually introduce noisemakers which are more similar, for example, 3 different shakers or three different drums

Sound lotto

You could use a commercially available sound lotto set.  To start with, use very different sounds, for example, ‘soundtracks’ which have sounds such as a running tap, a car starting or birds singing.

Next try more similar sounds. For example, Picture Sound Lotto has all the sounds belonging to a group on one board. The child has to use finer discrimination skills to choose between the different objects.

Milk bottles

Tapping milk bottles filled with varying levels of water are ideal for fine differentiation. Ask the child to identify matching sets. Start with just 3 bottles playing low, medium and high notes and gradually increase the number of bottles.

You could also use shakers using empty plastic bottles and filling them with sand or heavy pebbles.

Referral to speech and language therapy

If your child still has problems after trying the listening games, refer them to our Speech and Language therapy service.

 

 

Children learn by watching others speak and by listening to clear models of single sounds. They usually hear sounds articulated rapidly in words and sentences, so practicing listening to speech sounds on their own can help them to learn to produce those sounds.

Why it’s important

Some children find it difficult to hear the difference between speech sounds.  These children particularly need support because unless they can differentiate between the speech sounds they will find it very difficult to articulate them in words.

What you can do to help

With your child, listen to speech sounds, associate the sounds with a letter or picture and talk about the characteristics of speech sounds. For example, whether the sound is long like ‘s’ or short like ‘t’ give you and the child a common language to talk about speech sounds. This helps the child to understand what they’re trying to do.

Listening activities and building confidence

They relieve the pressure on the child to articulate the sound they find difficult.  They also help to develop the child’s confidence so they can experiment with the articulation when they feel comfortable.

The child must be able to hear the difference between the correct sound and his substituted sound when produced on their own. Play a game where you produce the target sound mixed up with the child’s substitution, for example, ‘k’ or ‘t’. The child points to a written symbol or picture when they hear the sound you produce.

Targeted sound activities

Choose two speech sounds to work on. One of the sounds should be a sound the child can already produce and the other sound is the ‘target sound’.  Choose 2 sounds that look and sound very different. For example, ‘d’ and ‘p’ sound different when spoken but they’re visually similar when written down.  It would be easier to focus on ‘d’ and ‘f’ which look and sound different.

Next, show the picture of the letter (large lower case letters on card or Jolly Phonics).  Say ‘s ….sammy snake says …. s ….’ Emphasize the letter sound not the letter name.

More listening games

Encourage the child to listen to the sounds when you play the following games.  Ask them to look at you as you say them so they can see how to make the sounds.  They may start to copy and articulate the sound.

Towers

Use some bricks, around 12 to 18.  Place the picture of the letters on the table.

Say the sound. The child puts the brick on the right sound picture. How tall can they make the towers?

Beanbag game

Use one cardboard box or container per letter. Stick a letter on each box.

You could also use beanbags, balls or socks tied in a knot. Say the sound. The child has to throw the beanbag into the matching box.

Hide and seek

Make 3 copies of each sound picture

Hide them around the room or out in the garden/playground

Say a sound and the child has to find the missing picture

 

The child must be able to hear the difference between speech sounds, for example ‘k’ and ‘t’ when spoken.  If they say ‘cap’ as ‘tap’, you need to find out if they can hear that the word starts with the ‘k’ sound.

How to find out if the child can hear speech sound differences

Can they point to the correct picture if you say ‘cap’ when presented with a picture of a ‘cap’ and a ‘tap’? Often listening activities where children hear lots of words beginning with the same sound will raise their awareness of which sounds appear at the beginning of words.

Listening activities (auditory input games)

The following games will help to determine if the child can hear words beginning with the sound they have difficulty with, not to say them. If they repeat the word it may be better to react only if they say it well or better than usual.

When you play the games, try to say the words as often as possible, for example:

“Oh you’ve got the castle” (or comb/cat/cup etc)

“Where’s the castle gone?”

“You need the castle now, can you find the castle?”

Making the games

Find lots of pictures beginning with the target sound your child struggles with.  You can look in magazines, catalogues, find picture cards from games, print pictures off the internet or copy pictures from books.  Encourage the child to help you find the pictures and talk about them as you add them to a special picture box or file.

You can then play the following games with the pictures. Remember the aim is for child to hear lots of words beginning with their target sound. It’s not important for them to repeat the word at this stage.

Pairs

Copy the pictures twice onto card or coloured paper and cut them up. Use 5 to 8 pairs face down. Take it in turns to turn up 2 pictures at a time. When a player identifies a pair, they get another turn. The winner is the player with the most pairs.

Stepping stones

Stick individual pictures on larger pieces of paper cut to look like stones and spread them out on the floor. Tell the child which stone to jump onto.

Hiding game

Hide individual pictures round the room and encourage your child to find them.

Fishing

Use a magnet and attach pictures to the fish (using paper clips).

Shopping

Use objects instead of pictures if possible. All of the objects should begin with the target sound, for example, carrot, comb, cup, corn, cake cabbage, card. Tell your child to fetch 1 to 3 things from the shop, naming each one.

Colouring

Encourage your child to colour the pictures, again using the words as much as possible.

Snake and ladders

Photocopy the pictures, stick them into numbered squares, and draw snakes/ladders. You’ll need counters and a dice/spinner.

Three in a row (noughts and crosses, but with pictures)

Cut up the pictures and paste in a 3 by 3 square. You’ll also need two sets of 5 counters. Like noughts and crosses, the object is to make a ‘line’ (diagonal, horizontal, vertical) of 3 counters. Take turns, naming each picture as each player places the counter.