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Understanding a child's speech

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

Speech Intelligibility

What does “intelligibility” mean?

  • Intelligibility describes the ability of a person to be understood by a listener, essentially, what percentage of everything that one says can be easily interpreted by another person. Intelligibility is different for familiar and unfamiliar listeners.

What is the difference between a familiar and unfamiliar listener?

  • A familiar listener is someone who frequently interacts with the speaker – family members, care takers, teachers, etc.

  • Children often exhibit patterns of errors in their speech, meaning that they will make the same speech sound mistakes every time they attempt to say something.

  • Those who frequently speak and listen to a child who is producing patterns of errors can become accustomed to the way a child speaks and are “familiar” with the way they speak, making it easier for the child to be understood.

  • An unfamiliar listener is someone who does not typically interact with the speaker or is infrequently exposed to their manner of speaking – strangers in the community, visitors, family friends, etc.

  • When someone interacts with a child once in a while, they are not likely to be aware of patterns of errors in the child’s speech and may have much more difficulty understanding what the child is saying, compared to someone who has frequent contact and communication with them.

Speech Intelligibility Expectations

  • 18-24 months – 25%-50% intelligible

  • 2- 3 years – 50% - 75% intelligible

  • 3-4 – 75% - 90% intelligible

  • 5+ - 90% - 100% intelligible

How do I know if my child’s intelligibility is appropriate based on their age?

Here are some ideas and questions to consider, to help you determine if your child is meeting intelligibility expectations.

  • How frequently do you “translate” your child’s speech for others, or how often their siblings “translate” what they are saying…does it happen with every sentence they say, or once in a while?

  • How often do you ask your child to repeat themselves?

  • How often do you have to pay very close attention or listen very carefully to your child to determine what they are trying to communicate?

  • Does your child become frustrated or shut down when they are not understood?

  • Do you need context clues to determine what your child is saying?

Most parents do not have time to record everything a child says and to then determine the percentage of the time that they are understood.

It may be valuable to pay attention during a daily routine in which you and your child are speaking to one another a lot, such as during bath time, play time, or meal times. This is called a “language sample”, and is an easy way to get a sense of your child’s intelligibility. Listen to your child, keeping in mind the questions posed above, and perhaps even write down each time there is a communication breakdown, compared to the total number of utterances they created.

The Effect of Poor Intelligibility

  • Maybe you are not sure if your child needs intervention, and believe that they will “grow out” of their unintelligible speech patterns. In some cases, this may be true, as there are developmentally appropriate speech sound errors; however, seeking intervention will always help more than it harms you and your child.

  • When children are difficult to understand by their peers, teachers, etc., it can lead to frustration, a lack of confidence and a reluctance to continue communicating.

  • If you notice that you or others have a hard time understanding your child, it is important to seek help before negative feelings form in regard to communication.

If you feel that your child is not meeting the intelligibility expectations mentioned above, it may be time to have your child evaluated by a speech-language pathologist, to determine areas of need and to remediate errors that affect your child’s ability to be understood.


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