When Children Mispronounce Words

Every Mom’s living nightmare: your little boy has finally begun talking; he toddles out to greet the grandparents/friends/neighbors and show them his favorite toy truck; you prompt him (or he volunteers) to show off his newfound speech; he substitutes the “tr” at the beginning of the toy’s name with “fw” and you find yourself embarrassed beyond comprehension. I am using a boy in this illustration simply because girls more often have a baby doll as their favorite toy and “baby” is much easier to pronounce. Girls can have equal difficulty with pronouncing certain sounds.

If you have acquaintances or family members who jump at the chance to turn everything into an off-color joke, you know you want to avoid this scene at any cost. The poor child has no idea why everyone is suddenly laughing and pointing fingers at him, or worse, scolding him for committing such a grievous sin. He is confused because he thought he was doing a good thing — speaking. His parents had just been begging him to talk; now he did and got punished (or humiliated) for it. What a confusing world!

Some children develop difficulty with pronunciation later on when they begin losing baby teeth and gaining adult teeth. Simple physics can explain this one: suddenly the child has some very large teeth in a still small mouth. It is the same principle as putting a family of six into a sedan. They do fit, but it is a tighter squeeze than if they were in a roomy minivan. Imagine those family members rapidly growing from T-ball players to football-team-starters and you will see my point even better.

Children will often outgrow speech difficulties as they gradually “grow into” their teeth, but we can also help them in the process by extending patience and loving instruction. Illustrate the letters and sounds present in the word and make sure the child knows how the word is supposed to sound. Get out the dictionary and look it up together — that way Webster is the authority of record, not just Mom. Lovingly coach the pronunciation practice, do not become the Dictatorial Tyrant of Corrections who inflicts fear of public speaking into anyone within earshot. Instill confidence in the child that he is not destined to a life of sounding like Elmer Fudd: he can and will learn to speak correctly, it will just take practice, and you will be there to help him every step of the way.

When my children had difficulty pronouncing words, I tenderly explained to them how it is important to be able to pronounce words correctly, since that is where most people get their first impressions of us: from our speech. Then I wrote out the word and we discussed all of the sounds made by the letters, including (when necessary) how some letters may make different sounds in other words, but sound this way in this word. Next I had them practice saying the word correctly, assuring them that I was not making fun of the way they pronounced it, nor was I “picking on them,” but trying to help them learn a difficult but necessary task. Usually, the faulty pronunciation was rooted in haste — the child had “heard” the word incorrectly, began pronouncing it incorrectly, and got into a bad habit. I had further reinforced that bad habit by not correcting the problem sooner, and I apologized to my child for my neglect. Now we were taking the time and effort to fix it, and things worked out well. We repeated this process — successfully — many times over, with no hurt or embarrassed feelings.

My son used to pronounce the word weapon as “weapond.” I showed him that there is no “d” on the end, and explained that it should not sound like “second.” It took several gentle reminders for him to begin catching and correcting himself, especially because he was usually enthusiastically telling me about his favorite subject!

Before he began reading, he had a few other mispronunciations. Those are more difficult to correct, just because the non-reader cannot appreciate the illustrated word and is limited to hearing the correction. My son consistently referred to the girl in the backyard: the contraption we used in the summertime to cook hamburgers and hotdogs. With patience, kindness, and a lot of practice, I was able to help him switch those sounds around and put the “r” right after the “g,” giving us a barbecue grill.

Another slightly defective word was not fully correctable until he learned to read the letters: he always said “shore” when he meant “sure.” It caught the attention of many church ladies who uttered a doting AWWWWW whenever he answered “Shore” instead of “Yes,” especially since he tended to draw the word out into nearly two syllables. Once he began to understand that letters have sounds and make up words, then I could convince him that there was a correct way to pronounce each word, and his insistence of “But I say it this way” was not an acceptable alternative.

I did have to point out to my children an adult appearing on a local TV news program who spoke with a slight speech impediment. I did not do it in a way that ridiculed the man, but rather asked my children what their impressions were of him. They understood immediately, and said that someone should have helped him learn to speak correctly when he was a small boy, so that he would not still have that juvenile speech pattern as an adult.

It is important to stress with beginning readers to read the sounds in order. In their anxious desire to read, children tend to rush through the words, guessing at what a word may be. Slow them down, encouraging them to take their time and be sure of what letter sounds are in the word, reading and pronouncing those sounds in the order that they appear in the word — that is reading, not guessing.

Practice with the child on difficult sounds such as “r,” “l,” or “s.” Assure the child that you are helping in his best interest, and do not allow any family members to poke fun at him. I am personally appalled at parents who dwell on the “cuteness” of a child’s mispronunciations and, rather than correct the ignorance, begin using the faulty word themselves. What a disservice to the child — I will not teach you the correct way to say the word, I will just repeat your mistake back to you every day for the rest of your life! Children recognize that they live in an adult world, and they want to be seen as being grown-up; they do not want to see grown-ups acting like children. Therefore, we should help them learn to say and do things the way they will need to say and do them in an adult world, not sentence them to spending any extra time trapped in childhood when they should be maturing. Yes, it may be cute when they are 2 or 3, but it is not doing them any favors to have them still using babyish speech at 12 or 13, or 22, or 33.

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