Acting on a growing suspicion, I asked my young son one day, “How many trees do you see in our backyard?”

In his cute little 6-year-old voice, he confidently replied, “I see twee twees!” And thus, with a concrete confirmation of some missing sounds, our journey with speech therapy began. As many children grow in their abilities to communicate and read, parents may notice irregularities in their speech. What may have been just adorable baby talk, after a time, becomes a concern.

According to Jill Allen, an experienced local speech-language pathologist, parents should not be alarmed at every mispronounced word, but consulting with a trained professional is always a good idea when patterns of mispronunciation persist. As she explained, language acquisition has a predictable developmental order to it. For example, the ability of a kindergartener to say the “k” sound in “key” should be in place by that age, but it is very normal for a child of that age to mistakenly say “wabbit” instead of “rabbit.” So, developmentally, children are not always ready to articulate certain sounds. Knowing this can be very reassuring to a parent, but, on the other hand, knowing when development is lagging is essential.

“Speech-Sound Disorders,” says Allen, is a broad term for speech difficulties, the causes of which are not known, but they can be grouped into four known risk categories: 1) gender, with males being more at-risk, 2) prenatal or perinatal conditions or trauma, 3) family history, and 4) hearing loss, often caused by undetected or chronic ear infections. Allen cautions that speech-sound disorders should not be confused with another condition called “language impairment,” which is a disorder that makes learning even a native language difficult. Speech difficulties, by themselves, are only a moderate barrier to literacy with its obvious phonic connections, but when a speech-sound disorder (SSD) is compounded by language impairment, a child can really struggle. That is a topic for another day.

Particularly during the preschool years, if you notice that your child is having persistent speech problems, including not being able to be generally understood by age 4 (intelligibility), it is important to get help. According to Allen, early speech-language intervention, from birth to age 3, is very effective. Your physician, pediatrician or local school district can refer you to professionals who may provide free evaluations. Sometimes, even a phone call is enough to get the information needed.

Upon receiving a formal assessment, parents may be given either recommendations for monitoring their child’s progress or for specific services needed. Pre-kindergarten services may have a cost attached, depending on ability to pay, but the cost of services, from age 3 and up, for those who meet the qualifying criterion, can be covered through the local school district. Your child’s teacher also can be a valuable partner in detecting problems and in working to meet speech goals.

My son Bryan and his wife, Aisling, were among those parents who found out that their child needed speech-language services. An undiagnosed hearing loss was discovered and speech therapy began immediately. After two years of intensive services, they have a happy boy again! Aisling notes that reading books played a very helpful role in helping our grandson learn to be more careful in articulating each letter in a word. The rate of speech improvement during treatment is not always predictable. Some children respond right away and make dramatic improvements, while others are overcoming years of incorrect habits and need longer therapy. Patience is key.

When your child struggles with speech, your worries for them can be overwhelming. Allen advises, don’t panic! Don’t project your worries onto your child. Get a proper assessment and, as needed, set goals with your therapist, but don’t stress about completing long sessions of homework. Keep it short. And don’t shut down or embarrass your child by over-correcting. Most importantly, Allen says, talk to them! Focus on enjoying your child. Listening to them is so important, even when it’s difficult. Have those conversations that will help you and your child bond. That means following their lead in what they want to talk about and not asking too many questions. Build on their words. Purposefully pause to allow them space to respond.

In addition to a positive attitude and professional assessment, Allen also recommends a visit to your local library. Your librarian can help you find books loaded with sound — books that focus on single sounds, fun rhymes, rhythms or concepts that help with language development. The Orem Parent Education Resource Centers, located in the Orem Public Library, is also a place to borrow supportive literature and phonics games. One very helpful online resource, Aisling shares, is found at http://mommyspeechtherapy.com.

Without a proper diagnosis and treatment, a speech-language disorder could result in years of heartbreaking frustration, social handicaps, and academic walls of misunderstanding. Thanks to the marvelous work of speech-language professionals like Allen, many children and adults with speech difficulties are functioning optimally in our society today. She derives a great deal of personal satisfaction when she hears of children who no longer throw tantrums because their words are unintelligible or of grandparents who are able to have a phone conversation with their grandchild for the first time.

The joy of being heard and understood is a wonderful thing and it is “k-k-k-key” to a life of literacy and learning.

Ada Wilson is a guest writer through the United Way EveryDay Learners initiative.

For more information and resources, visit www.everydaylearners.org.