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From blowing raspberries to kicking k - how children learn to make speech sounds

Listening to sounds

Making sounds begins by listening to sounds. Initially babies tune into sounds by watching the faces of their parents and adults that are close to them, the visual attention centres activating in the brain.

There is already a link between what they hear and the motor areas in the brain, so listening is helping them to learn to make different sounds. This link has been evolving since before birth, as hearing is developed by their 24th week in the womb.

Interesting fact - Did you know that babies up to 6 months old respond to sounds in any language but from 6 months they respond more to the sounds of the language(s) they hear most around them? They have already worked out which are the most important sounds in their world.

Early sounds

Everyone is familiar with crying as a babies' communication and gradually these sounds become more developed and sophisticated. Crying involves bringing the vocal chords together and pushing the air out of their lungs.

You'll hear babies making cooing noises (see this clip) which sounds like early vowel sounds then they make open vowel sounds like 'aaaaah' to respond to you or play. Then they'll blow raspberries where they have to co-ordinate moving their tongue forwards and blowing out.

At about 6 months old babies begin to babble i.e. combine consonant sounds with vowels such as baaaaa, maaaa. It's no coincidence that Mum and Dad in most languages are made up of speech sounds that children develop early on!

Making sounds

Making sounds requires our brain to send a signal from the motor part of the brain to the muscles and nerves of the lips, jaw and tongue.

Sounds in most languages are made by 'shaping' air from the lungs as we breathe out and by changing the shape of the tongue, lips and vocal chords in our throats (if you've ever had laryngitis or lost your voice you'll know about these not working as they should).

Speech production is complex and in order for children to become competent communicators they must master a range of different skills involved in making sounds:

Turning on the vocal chords

To find out if the vocal chords are involved in a sound put your hand against the middle of your throat and say 'zzzzzz' then say 'ssssss'. Can you feel the different between your vocal chords coming together and when they are relaxed? Speech sounds are often paired together and involve all the same action with the tongue and lips but are either voiced (use the vocal chords) or voiceless (vocal chords relaxed). For example, 't' (voiceless)  and 'd' (voiced) are paired together.

Mastering the manner

There are different ways that sounds are made (often known as the 'manner'). For example, a 'b' sound comes from bringing the lips together tightly and then the air explodes out when released. Sounds like 'b', 'p', 't', 'd', 'k' and 'g' are all stops or plosives.

Sounds that involve shaping the tongue for the air to escape sound longer and are known as fricatives. This includes sounds such as 's', 'z', 'sh' and 'f'.

In the right place

It's also important where you put your tongue, teeth and lips (the 'place' of articulation). For example, putting the tip of the tongue behind the teeth and releasing it quickly produces a 't' sound;  whereas lifting the back of the tongue to the back of the palate and releasing  makes a 'k' sound. Bringing the teeth onto or in front of the lips makes the shape for a 'f' or 'v' sound.

Find out more about the stages children go through when learning to make and use different speech sounds from the I CAN factsheet.

Reflecting on practice

  • Do you play with sounds and copy the sounds that children make?
  • Do you make silly sounds and talk about how our mouths move?
  • Do you sit face to face and where children can see your face and how your mouth moves?

Find out more about the way your lips, teeth and tongue work by saying sounds in front of a mirror with children. You can also try putting a finger in your mouth and working out which part moves when you say a sound.

For more ideas download our factsheet.

Learning to make different speech sounds takes time and practice for children. There are different things that can affect this and trying to minimise these early one can often help children later on.

Next time we'll look at what can affect children's speech sound development and how you can help.

Find out more from I CAN's factsheets. If you have any questions you can call or email us at I CAN Help and a speech and language therapist will answer your enquiry.

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant.

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