When a three-and-a-half-year-old's speech is difficult to understand, children may begin to leave her out of their play. It's time for parents and teacher to get together and plan.

The Teacher's Story

"I DON'T KNOW what you're saying," complained Jill before she turned and walked away. How sad it was to see Amy rebuffed again. Putting a protective arm around her, I thought about how different things had been just a month ago.

For a child who was new to group experience, Amy started the year out remarkably well. Every activity seemed to delight her during those early days of school. Her high spirits initially attracted playmates, but gradually children began to turn away. They were giving up on trying to understand Amy's speech. It's not that Amy didn't make a real effort to communicate; in fact, she was quite the chatterbox, with an extensive vocabulary for her age. But so much of what she said wasn't (and still isn't) intelligible.

I've been working hard at understanding what Amy attempts to tell me, and so far have figured out that "Jia" is her brother Jeremiah and "Bidabe" is her sister Elizabeth. At first I thought "ducta," which came up in dramatic play, meant "doctor." Then I realized Amy was saying "train conductor."

But the fact that I'm learning to understand her is not enough. Each time Amy approaches a child and is ignored, she grows more frustrated. Recently she has begun to grab at toys and disrupt children's play or projects. Despite my reassuring words after her unsuccessful effort to chat with Jill, she had a tantrum. I'm worried that this sort of behavior will lead the children to avoid her even more.

The Parent's Story

AMY IS OUR YOUNGEST. Her brother, Jeremiah, is six and Elizabeth, her sister, is nine. It has never confused any of us that Amy leaves off the first part of many words. And since she talks incessantly, we've had many opportunities to get used to her language. For example, we know that when Amy says "getti," she means "spaghetti."

Until now, I haven't worried about what I guess you'd call Amy's immature speech. But lately I've noticed that if someone doesn't immediately pick up on what she is trying to say, Amy gets very annoyed. And since she is learning new words every day, it's quite a challenge for people to keep up with her unique style of pronunciation.

There's also been a big change in the way Amy feels about school. At first she was so happy to go every morning and still full of enthusiasm at the end of the day. Now her mood has done a turnabout. Today, for example, she said she didn't want to go to school at all. When I asked why, she said, "Because no one will play with me." That worried me a lot, and I wondered if Amy's speech had anything to do with it. I called the teacher and we agreed to meet. Over the phone she had time to tell me only that the children are having difficulty understanding Amy and that because three-year-olds don't have a lot of patience, they just walk away. This isn't what I had hoped preschool might do for my little girl. Maybe we started her too soon. Should we have waited until her speech was better?

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

Amy's mom was correct to describe Amy's speech as immature. Though her vocabulary is above the average (250+ words) and the form and flow of her language are both fine, her articulation skills are lagging. Ordinarily, we can expect at least three quarters of the speech of children Amy's age to be intelligible. Using that yardstick, Amy's falls short. While there is a good chance this might change in time without any special help, the social frustration Amy is enduring is a good reason to do something about it right now.

What the Teacher Can Do

The teacher should have that meeting with Amy's parent as soon as possible and make it clear that because of the social and emotional consequences, her unclear speech deserves attention. The teacher will also want to be prepared with a short list of speech therapists, which her director or administrator is likely to have, and gently introduce the option of seeking a speech evaluation. She can reassure the parent that visits to an early childhood speech therapist are not only painless, but usually great fun.

When the teacher herself converses with Amy, she should speak a bit slower than she ordinarily would and slightly exaggerate correct pronunciations. While it's not a good idea to correct the child directly, she might incorporate into her responses some of what Amy has said. In other words, she can take advantage of natural, everyday opportunities to model correct articulation. At the same time, repeating what Amy has said will be a face-saving way to make her ideas clear to other children.

What the Parent Can Do

 Most early speech immaturities vanish on their own. That's why there is ordinarily no rush for intervention when children are three or four. But Amy's frustration at being misunderstood is a valid reason to get going. When there is a social or emotional cost to a child, it's best not to wait.

Parents can work closely with the teacher to devise a plan, starting with an evaluation by a speech therapist who is very experienced in working with preschoolers. The therapist will then give pointers about how the family can help. Perhaps included in those will be a suggestion to make an effort to speak clearly and not be too quick to "understand" Amy's mispronunciations. For example, saying "Oh, you mean you want spaghetti tonight" would be of more help than simply complying with Amy's request for "getti."

Everyone's first goal is to help Amy work harder for accuracy without feeling frustrated. Of course, ultimately your aim is to restore her joyfulness about school and excitement about life in general.