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Helping children with unclear speech

It’s important to respond to what the child says, not to how clearly they speak.

Children often don’t realise they’re mispronouncing words, so correcting them can be confusing. For example, if the child says ‘fis’ and the adult says ‘Did you say fis?’ the child may look puzzled and reply ‘No. I said fis, not FIS!!’.

Repeat what the child says, but use the correct words.

If the child says ‘I like tories at cool’, you could say ‘Yes, stories at school are fun’. This way you’re saying ‘Yes I know what you mean, but this is how you say it’. It might help to put a very slight emphasis on the sound(s) the child has mispronounced.

Don’t make the child repeat the words.

Drawing too much attention to mispronunciations is not helpful; it’s better to build their self esteem.
If you understood part of the child’s conversation, repeat it back. This shows them they’ve been partially successful, and may encourage them to tell you more.

Use strategies to help anticipate what the child might say. For example by using a home-school book, in which the parents can record events or weekend activities, or use books, pictures, models etc. These can help if the child’s speech is very unclear because you have some idea of what they might be trying to communicate. Give praise for other things the child does well.

Don’t pretend to understand.


  • Asking questions
  • Saying "show me …" and encouraging the child to use gestures and mime as well as taking you to things.

Sometimes you just have to admit that you can’t understand. Be as reassuring as possible.

Children may be able to make a sound, but be unable to use it in words.

This is quite normal. A child may be able to make the ‘s’ sound on their own but then say ‘tock’ for ‘sock’. The best way to help is to repeat the words correctly so they have a good example to follow.

Sometimes speech and language therapy support is needed. Ask your GP or health visitor to consider referring for a hearing test, for completeness.

If by three years of age, when they talk, they only use one word or two word combinations, they echo adult language or learnt phrases, or they say words in an unusual order; if they have a poor understanding of spoken language, and have trouble following instructions or answering simple questions; if they are unintelligible (they can’t make themselves understood) most of the time to family or in a pre-school setting, please speak to your health visitor or GP.

If by three and a half years old, they can’t say simple sentences, say words in an unusual order, are not able to take turns in a conversation, they might echo or repeat what people say, their speech is difficult to understand, or they only use a small range of sounds - please speak to your health visitor or GP.

The Department of Education has created a resource called Hungry Little Minds to help support parents and carers with tips to encourage speech, language and development in age appropriate stages.

Online early language development workshops

Our team run online workshops on early language development. They are designed for parents and carers and those working within early years settings. We have three training sessions available on different topics to equip you with everyday strategies to support your child, aged up to five. Find our more information here.