Speech Therapy for Kids - When to See a Speech Pathologist

General Medical

Tammy George

A speech therapist and young girl sitting at a table practicing sounds.

The most intensive period of speech development occurs in the first three years of life. Learning to speak is crucial for toddlers to communicate and for understanding language in their early school years. 

Speech has milestones for young children, just as there are milestones for other components of their development. If a child doesn’t reach these milestones, parents should seek advice from their GP or child health nurse about taking their child to a speech pathologist. 

Here are some things you can listen out for in your child’s speech to make sure they’re hitting those milestones:

  • Not babbling with consonant sounds by nine months

  • Not using less than 20 words at 18 months

  • Not using less than 50 words by age two

  • People having difficulty understanding your child at the age of three 

  • People having difficulty understanding your child at the age of four or older 

A two year old child should also be able to combine words to form a phrase and should speak frequently in various settings at a reasonable volume. 

Two young girls speaking on the phone together.

How Common Are Speech and Communication Problems in Children?

It’s not just toddlers and the very young who experience speech impairments. If left untreated, speech problems can continue into primary and high school. 

According to Speech Pathology Australia (SPA) around 1.1 million people (5% of the population) have a communication disorder. Studies reveal that 13% of children at primary & secondary schools in Australia have a communication impairment which may involve speech, language, literacy, social communication, voice and fluency. Children with a language impairment are six times more likely to have a reading problem than children without the impairment. There’s also a correlation between communication difficulties and poor mental health.

Gaining professional advice from a speech therapist can help with a child’s early development and success at school.   

School children listening and doing schoolwork at their desks.

Difference Between Language and Speech

Language refers to speaking, comprehension, reading and writing. A child may have a delay with one or more of these language skills. 

Speech refers to voice, articulation and fluency. The voice refers to breath and vocal cords. Articulation is the way the different parts of the mouth come together to form sounds and words. Poor fluency is a stammer or stutter.    

Articulation Disorder

To produce a sound correctly involves the coordinated movements of the lips, tongue, teeth, palate (top of the mouth) and respiratory system (lungs). There are also many different nerves and muscles used for speech. Children with an articulation disorder can have problems with:

  • Making sounds and forming particular speech sounds properly and may lisp

  • Not being able to produce a particular sound

A young girl putting her hand up to speak in a classroom.

Milestones for Saying Sounds

By the age of four, the majority of children can say most sounds correctly (e.g., m, n, h, w, p, b, t, d, k, g, ng, f, y, s, z, ch, j, sh, l) and combine two or more consonant clusters (e.g., tw, sp, gl). Children may use clusters at the start (e.g., blue) or end of words (e.g., hand). Also, children will usually say most vowel sounds in words correctly (e.g., ay, oh, ee). 

But some sounds are more difficult to pronounce than others. Most children will need another year to be able to correctly pronounce the ‘r and v’ sounds. It’s normal for the ‘th’ sound to take much longer. Many children will be eight before they can correctly pronounce words containing ‘th’.    

Between the ages of four and five, preschool children start to develop skills that will be important for learning to read and write. Known as “pre-literacy skills”, they understand that words can rhyme, for example hat and cat. Some children struggle with these pre-literacy requirements which can make it difficult to learn to read and write. 

By the age of five, a child’s speech should be easily understood by everyone, not just their close family members. It’s normal for a family to know what a child is saying because they know the context of the conversation and the words their child commonly uses. It’s important that a person outside the family can understand a child aged five.  

A five year old will typically have a vocabulary of 2,500 words. They can speak in sentences and paragraphs and will usually have endless questions for parents and teachers as they develop an understanding of their world. 

A young girl in the library reading a children’s book.

Phonological Disorders

A child with a phonological disorder will experience one or more of the following:

  • Make the sounds correctly but use it in the wrong position in a word

  • Make the sounds correctly but use it in the wrong word

  • Make mistakes with the particular sounds in words


Stuttering and stammering is when speech is interrupted in its rhythm or flow. There may be hesitations, repetition or silent blocks where a child tries to speak but no sound comes out. Stuttering usually starts in early childhood, often by the age of three. The stuttering may change in type or frequency. Research shows 8.5% of three year old children experience stuttering. By school age, children may experience tension when they speak, be teased by their peers, suffer from anxiety and have social difficulties. In later life, the impairment may impact their education and occupational opportunities. 

A young boy speaking in front of his classmates in a classroom.

What You Can Do to Help Your Child’s Speech

Parents can do several things to help improve their child’s speech. Children learn to talk by listening to others so take every opportunity to talk to your child as much as possible. Name objects, people and places. Talk to your child from when they’re a baby about anything (even if they don’t understand what you’re saying). Children are happy to listen to a parent’s voice and be spoken to.   

Later you can say a word, phrase or sentence and ask your child to repeat it to help them model your language. Speak slowly and articulate so your child has an opportunity to hear the sounds and attempt to repeat them. 

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See a Speech Pathologist

A speech pathologist/therapist is a person who diagnoses communication and speech problems and devises a treatment plan. Speech pathologists work with a wide range of people from babies with a cleft palate to elderly people with swallowing difficulties. An undergraduate or masters degree from an Australian university is required to work as a speech pathologist. 

Have Your Child’s Hearing Checked

Some speech problems are related to poor hearing. A child needs to be able to hear spoken words clearly to repeat them correctly. A child may have passed their hearing test as a newborn but can develop a hearing problem later, particularly if they have had an ear infection. Speak to your GP if you have any concerns about your child’s hearing and organise a hearing check. 

A young boy having his hearing checked by a specialist to see if he needs speech therapy.

Let Your Child Speak

Much of the time (but not always!) a parent knows what their child wants. They might be pointing to their cup or pulling at the fridge door so it’s pretty clear what they want. Rather than completing their request after a point or grunt, tell your child to ask for it if they’re old enough. Repeat the word as you hand it over and encourage them to try to say the word/s with you.

Correct Your Child’s Speech

Parents are a young child’s most important teacher. When a child says a word incorrectly, let them know how to say it and encourage them to repeat the word with you. A little time spent with your child helping with their speech can pay dividends for their future. 

Some HIF Extras Covers allow you to claim on visits to a speech therapist. For more information call HIF on 1300 134 060 or contact us online.

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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