Derry Patterson considers the impact of speech sound difficulties on both pupils and adults.

Imagine for a moment it is the first day back after the Christmas break. The children are all coming into class with excited chatter, all wanting to tell you about their holidays. Tommy approaches you. You feel your heart sink. Tommy has lots to say but you can never understand him. You try to get him to slow down, meanwhile you are speeding up. You start to feel uncomfortable. You look around for someone to help you. You start talking so he doesn’t have to. He wants to tell you what he got for Christmas but you can’t even guess what he is trying to say. He is getting frustrated and so are you. Eventually you tell him that it’s time to start work now. His shoulders slump and he wanders off. How do you feel?

Approximately 5% of pupils starting school will have some form of speech impairment (Law et al, 2000). This ranges from minor delays in producing particular sounds to severe phonological disorders and dyspraxia. If you teach infant children you will have worked with at least one pupil who is unintelligible.

There is often confusion about the meaning of the terms “speech” and “language”. The term “spoken language” describes the words and grammar used when talking. Speech, on the other hand, is used to describe the physical skill of producing speech sounds. It is the ability to produce sounds accurately and rapidly in the right sequence to pronounce words.

Speech difficulties can affect anyone although some groups of people will be more susceptible. If the child has a history of hearing difficulties, including glue ear, a cleft palate or a global developmental delay they will have an increased risk of speech sound difficulties (Enderby & Emerson, 1995).

Even minor speech difficulties can impact widely on pupils in the classroom. Young children with a delay in their speech development can be very isolated from their peers and school community and can quickly become vulnerable in unfamiliar situations. They will find tasks that require verbal answers hard and may be reluctant to speak in front of the class. They may have problems following instructions as a result of mishearing words or confusing the meaning of similar sounding words and they may become frustrated at not being able to get their message across.

Perhaps the greatest risk these pupils face is that their speech sound difficulties will affect their literacy development. Literacy is affected by problems in early sound learning. Phonological awareness skills between 3.6 – 5.0 are a strong predictor of later literacy development (Holm, Farrier & Dodd, 2008, Hesketh, 2004).

It is essential to act quickly if you suspect a pupil has speech sound difficulties. If these problems are not resolved the child may go on to develop long term difficulties learning sounds and developing literacy which will impact on their ability to access the curriculum.

If you are concerned about a pupil’s speech you should discuss your concerns with your local speech and language therapy service. Most speech difficulties are quite straight forward and with a little extra support can be overcome. However, there is no quick fix. It generally takes between 6 months to a year for a child to be able to use new sounds in their talking. It is very common for children to be able to produce target sounds in single words but struggle when using the same words in everyday language. You can help by stressing target sounds in your talking and providing reminders for the child to use target sounds.

Here are some things you can try when you don’t understand a pupil:

Slow down – Make use of natural pauses to slow your own speech down rather than saying each word slowly. Try to keep the natural intonation and rhythm of talking.

Extra time – Give the pupil extra time to respond. It takes a lot of effort to use new sounds.

Be creative – Ask the pupil to show you or take you if they can. You can also provide alternatives for them to choose, e.g. did you go to the park or the beach?

Link with parents – Use home/school note book or check with parents for news so that you have an idea what the pupil might be telling you e.g. at circle time. Use the contact book to find out names of family, friends, pets etc. so that you can understand who the child is talking about.

To find out how hard it feels to change the way we say words, try this exercise: Say the first verse of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ out loud changing all the /s/ sounds into /d/ sounds and all the /t/ sounds into /d/ sounds. Make sure you don’t cheat and write it down!

Speech Link is a popular programme widely used throughout the UK to support pupils with speech sound difficulties. It includes a simple screening assessment which identifies problem sounds and provides a programme of tailored work. Resources include online interactive listening games and handouts for parents. The website provides useful background information. To find out more visit


  • Enderby, P. & Emerson, J. (1995) Does speech and language therapy work? London: Whurr
  • Hesketh, A. (2004) Early literacy achievement of children with a history of speech problems. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 39, 4, 453-468.
  • Holm, A, Farrier, F. & Dodd, B. (2008) Phonological awareness, reading accuracy and spelling ability of children with inconsistent phonological disorder. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 43, 3, 300-322.
  • Law, J., Boyle, J., Harris, F., Harkness, A. & Nye, C. (2000) Prevalence and natural history of primary speech and language delay: Findings from a systematic review of the literature. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 35, 2, 165-188.
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