Speech sounds are the vocal sounds we use to make up words in the English language. We use them every time we say a word out loud. Saying the right sounds in order allows us to communicate with other people and understand what they are saying.

It can help to differentiate speech sounds from the alphabet. For example, in English, the alphabet comprises 26 letters. Therefore, the 44 speech sounds in English are the pure sounds that letters make when spoken, unrelated to the letter’s name.

Helping children understand different speech sounds can be a valuable part of speech development.

Supporting Children with Speech Development:

When children learn to speak, speech sounds can be complex and overwhelming. Here are some ways that you can support your children with speech development:

  • Remain face-to-face with them when talking; this will help them to be able to see the shape your mouth makes and imitate it more easily.
  • Slow your speech so children can understand the different sounds that make up other words.
  • Acknowledge how your child feels about speech, e.g., frustrated, sad, proud, etc. It can also help not to avoid over-correcting children so they don’t constantly feel like they’re wrong.
  • Find quiet time to talk and practice, avoiding noise such as TV in the background or other conversations.
  • Playing sound games such as eye-spy focuses on the initial sound found in words.
  • Clap syllables out in a word to help children to understand how each word is made up.

44 Speech sounds in English:

There are 44 speech sounds in English, each with a different letter connection.

Speech sounds only exist in a spoken format, meaning we cannot officially spell them out. However, we can use a letter or combination of letters to represent different speech sounds.

Just like with our written alphabet, we can split speech sounds into two major categories, vowels & consonants.

Some speech sounds (particularly vowel sounds) can be made up using just one letter. For example, The ‘oo’ speech sounds use the letter o, and ‘ee’ speech sounds use the letter e.

A few words that use oo sounds include:

  • Boo
  • Book
  • Look

Examples of words that have an ee sound in are:

  • Eel
  • Sea
  • Sheep

However, there are also lots of speech sounds that are made up of two letters. For example, the sound ‘ew’ is made using the letters e and w, and the sound ‘oe’ is made using the letters o and e.

However, there are also many speech sounds among the 44 sounds that are made up of two letters (a digraph). For example, the sound ‘ew’ is made using the letters e and w, and the sound ‘oe’ is made using the letters o and e.

Some speech sounds use three letters – we call this a trigraph (e.g., ‘dge’).

Words that contain an ew sound include:

  • Dew
  • Few
  • Knew

Examples of words that use an oe sound are:

  • Toe
  • Foe
  • Heroes

Speech Sound Developmental Milestones:

As young learners explore different speech sounds, it is essential to remember that children will always develop at different rates. However, some expected milestones can be a good gauge of a child’s speech development.

Here is a rough idea of when children may start developing particular speech sounds:

0-6 Months:

As a young baby, children may start making cooing noises such as ‘ooh’ and ‘ah.’ You may also notice babies beginning to make eye contact with adults who are talking to them.

6-12 Months:

As children begin to reach a year of age, they may begin to start babbling certain words. They will also repeat common words, like ‘mama’ and ‘dada.’

1-2 Years:

Children should start saying hard consonant sounds like /p/, /b/, /t/, /m/, /n/, and /d/.

5-6 Years:

By this age, children should be confident saying most speech sounds, although there may still be some immaturities with sounds like /r/ and /th/.

Teaching terms for Speech Sound Awareness:

Minimal Pairs: Minimal pairs are words that sound identical except for one sound. Activities involving speech sounds can be useful for listening out for which sounds a child struggles with, and then you can start working on supporting those specific speech sounds.

Syllables: Sounding out the specific syllables in each word can help children pinpoint the exact speech sounds.

Sound Discrimination: This skill involves hearing the differences between speech sounds. When doing speech discrimination activities, it is essential to use the pure form of a speech sound and explain its specific properties.

Since sound discrimination is about hearing the difference between speech sounds, children won’t be speaking and just listening to you make the sounds in these activities.

Speech Steps: Children learn sounds step-by-step. To start, they will say speech sounds in isolation and then work up to using that speech sound in everyday use. Children also typically work on one sound at a time in one part of a word. Again, it is because introducing too many speech sounds at once can lead to frustration.

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