Overview of Speech Development: A Short Summary of a Long Time

Blog #7 in the Phonology Means Nothing and Other Astounding and Very Practical Facts about Speech Sound Disorders Blog Series

For more information about this series, see the Phonology Means Nothing Series welcome page

By Ken Bleile, PhD
August 12, 2020

Speech is complex and requires many years for a child to learn. It begins months before a baby is born, when they lie curled in the womb listening to mother’s voice, and it continues throughout life. It is convenient to divide this long time into four shorter stages:

Stage

Age Range

Hallmark

Infants

Birth to 12 months

Foundations

Toddlers

12–24 months

Word learning

Preschoolers

24 months to 5 years

Rule learning

Students

5 years to adulthood

Literacy

In every stage in speech development, speech perception, speech production, and sound communication interact with each other. Think of speech perception and speech production as the building blocks that create the foundation on which sound communication stands.

Infants

During infancy, a child lays the foundations for future speech development, learning such essentials as how to get your mouth to go where you want it to go, that sound can mean, and that conversations entail taking turns with sound.

Perception: Infants pay close attention to intonation, allowing a child to interact even though they may not know the meaning of words. Categorical perception helps an infant discover individual sounds within the stream of speech.

Production: An infant’s earliest vocalizations arise while breathing and moving the mouth. Over the months that follow, vocalizations progress to sounds in the back and then front of the mouth. Near 7 months, an infant’s ability to control their speech mechanism progresses to the point that they can babble (make consonants and vowels within a syllable). The first year of life closes with infant babbling under an adult-sounding intonation contour.

Communication: During the first year, an infant learns that sound can mean and that conversations involve taking turns with sound. To achieve these advances in communication, a child needs both a brain able to learn and an environment dedicated to teaching. Bonding provides the emotional connection a parent needs to raise an infant. Speech input in the form of motherese transforms the noise in a child’s world into a ladder for learning, and familiar social routines provide an important location for learning.

Toddler

During the second year of life, a toddler learns to use to words to communicate.

Perception: A lack of attention and little world knowledge may give rise to perceptual confusions.

Production: A toddler’s first consonants tend to be endpoints (stops and glides). Vowel development is in advance of consonant development. Open syllables predominate, and words with two syllables tend to follow a stress-unstressed pattern.

Communication: During the second year, a toddler’s expressive vocabulary grows from a few words to several hundred. As the year progresses, a toddler increasingly relies on those words to communicate. Facilitative talk (advanced motherese) shapes language into a lesson a toddler can learn. To communicate despite severe limits in their speech-making abilities, a toddler develops systematic ways to talk that help them get around their speech challenges.

Preschoolers

Speech development progresses rapidly during the preschool years, both challenging and stretching a child’s speech abilities.

Perception: Perceptual errors arise through inattention and lack of world knowledge, especially as their social world expands to include a variety of speakers in a wider range of social settings.

Production: During the preschool years, a child may master most or all midpoint consonants (fricatives, affricates, liquids). Fifty percent of preschoolers complete acquisition of consonant clusters before beginning school. In other areas of speech, vowel errors become less common after 3 years, and more syllable and stress patterns emerge in words.

Communication: A preschooler’s ability to learn words and make sentences expands rapidly between 2 and 5 years. Vocabulary growth, maturing syntactic skills, and an expanding social world combine to both challenge and stretch a preschooler’s speech abilities.

Students

In the school years, a student applies knowledge of speech to literacy and masters the most complex sounds, syllables, and stress patterns in the language.

Perception: Speech perception difficulties may continue in the school years. For example, on first hearing about an emu, a student may hear it as email.

Production: Students typically acquire the last consonants of English by 6 years; prominent consonant errors include stopping, gliding, lisping, bladed, and lateralizing. Derhoticization and lip rounding are prominent speech errors affecting [r] colored vowels. By 8 years, students typically master the last consonant clusters; prominent consonant cluster errors include syllable deletion and epenthesis. Speech challenges with vowels, syllables, and stress in “difficult words” may emerge in later grades as students encounter more literate and scientific vocabulary.

Communication: For a student with speech challenges, a school’s curriculum is both a mountain a student must climb and a hand that pulls them up to reach the peak of their potential. Including activities that support the school’s curriculum benefits students, teachers, and families.

Fortunately, incorporating the curriculum into speech treatment is relatively easy, because a student typically uses speech for so many daily purposes.