Sound Start Study


The Sound Start Study is a research project funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant and conducted by researchers from Charles Sturt University, The University of Sydney, and The University of the West of England. This study was conducted 2013-2015. The final newsletter for the project is available here. The main results from the study are available here.

The Sound Start Study focused on 4- to 5-year-old children who were attending preschool. The main aims of this study were to investigate the speech skills of 4- to 5-year-old children and to determine the effectiveness of the innovative computer program, Phoneme Factory Sound Sorter (PFSS) as an intervention for preschool children with speech difficulties. Development of the Australian version of PFSS was supported by the Rural and Distance Education team from the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities (DEC).


The easy and successful acquisition of literacy requires children to enter school with competent speech, language, and pre-literacy skills. Up to one in five Australian preschoolers has speech difficulties (speech sound disorder), which will affect 30% to 77% of these children's literacy acquisition if it persists into the school years. Without specialist services, these children face increased risk of life-long social, educational, and vocational limitations. Children may be impeded from accessing specialist services because of

  • difficulties identifying which children with speech difficulties will go on to have literacy difficulties,
  • a lack of remediation solutions that address speech and pre-literacy skills for children in preschools, and
  • a short supply of specialist services (e.g., speech pathology) for preschool-aged children with speech difficulties.


The overarching aim of this project was to determine the effectiveness of an innovative computer-based intervention in assisting children with speech impairment to develop age appropriate speech and pre-literacy skills to decrease the risk of later speech and reading difficulties. This was achieved through

  • evaluating the effectiveness of a computer-based intervention (Phoneme Factory Sound Sorter, PFSS) in improving children's pre-literacy skills, speech production accuracy, phonological processing skills, participation, and wellbeing,
  • determining the relationship between children's speech errors, pre-literacy skills, and phonological processing skills, and
  • exploring which child and family characteristics are associated with differences in children's speech and pre-literacy development.

Procedure and protocol

This research compared the development of children with speech difficulties who participate in typical classroom practices with children involved in typical classroom practice and using PFSS. The research had six stages, with each stage being repeated annually for three years (2013, 2014, 2015) with a different group of children, caregivers, and educators each year.

  • Stage 1: Caregivers and educators of 4- to 5-year-old children attending NSW preschools completed questionnaires. Questionnaires were completed by the caregivers of 1,205 children and the educators of 1,064 of these children also completed a questionnaire. The purpose of this questionnaire was to identify children whose caregivers/educators had concerns about their speech development, to investigate how well children's could be understood by the people in their life, and to ascertain which areas of children's development caregivers and educators were most frequently concerned about. The children who participated in Stage 1 were aged between 4 years to 5 years 7 months (mean age 4 years 5 months), and there were more male (630) than female (575) children participating. All children used English at some time during their week however 37.4% of children used one or more languages as well as English, with 68 different languages reported to be used.
  • Stage 2: Children whose speech development was of concern were offered a screening assessment from a speech pathologist. A total of 275 children received screening assessments through the Sound Start Study.
  • Stage 3: Children identified with speech sound disorder received a comprehensive assessment of their pre-literacy, phonological awareness, phonological processing, language, participation, and wellbeing from a speech pathologist. Comprehensive assessments were provided to 133 children through the Sound Start Study.
  • Stage 4: Approximately half of the children with speech sound disorder completed the PFSS program for 9 weeks with a teaching assistant in their preschool environment while the other children will receive no intervention. During the three years of the Sound Start Study 65 children completed the PFSS program and 58 were monitored as they continued their normal attendance at preschool.
  • Stage 5: All children's progress was assessed by a speech pathologist after 9 weeks of intervention/no intervention. 114 children were assessed in this stage.
  • Stage 6: All children were re-assessed by a speech pathologist 6/8 weeks after they had completed the intervention/no intervention program. In total 115 children were assessed at this stage.

All data collection of the Sound Start Study is now complete. During 2015 and 2016 we will be working to analyse the data.

This project is an interdisciplinary venture that draws on both the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace, 2009) and the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health – Children and Youth (ICF-CY; World Health Organization, 2007). The findings of this research will provide insights into intervention for children with speech difficulties in preschool settings and the underlying nature of speech difficulties in children.

Sound Start Findings

  • Concerns about children's development: As part of the stage one questionnaire caregivers and educators described which areas of a child's development were of concern to them. Overall, more caregivers (35%) and educators (37%) were concerned about children's speech and expressive language development than any other aspect of development. The areas of development of next most concern behavior (Caregivers 24%; Educators 19%), social-emotional (Caregivers 23%; Educators 18%), school readiness (Caregivers 19%; Educators 15%), receptive language (Caregivers 15%; Educators 22%), self-help (Caregivers 15%; Educators 13%), fine motor (Caregivers 11%; Educators 12%), and gross motor (Caregivers 9%; Educators 7%). You can read more about these findings here.
  • Understanding children's speech: As part of the stage one questionnaire caregivers described how well their child's speech could be understood by different people who were more or less familiar with their child. Typically a 4- to 5-year-olds speech can usually be understood by all people that they talk to, even people they have not met before. Children's speech was best understood by their caregivers followed by their immediate family, friends, teachers, and strangers. Through the Sound Start Study normative and validation data for the assessment tool used, the Intelligibility in Context Scale was also collected and analysed. You can read more about these findings here.
  • Speech sound disorder and polysyllables: As part of the assessment sessions, children were asked to say a list of long words (e.g., spaghetti, caterpillar, watermelon). We were interested in exploring how children with speech sound difficulties (speech sound disorders) say these long words. We were particularly interested in the types and frequency of different types of errors. Long words (also known as polysyllables, or multisyllabic words) are interesting because they are difficult for children to say and they are more sensitive to error than short words (e.g., school, pig, boy). Children demonstrated four main types of errors when saying polysyllables: substitution of sounds, deletion of sounds, alterations in timing and alterations in the consonant-vowel structure of words (also known as phonotactics). Preliminary results also suggest that children who deleted lots of the sounds (consonants and vowels) in polysyllables also demonstrated poorer receptive vocabulary skills and poorer performance on early phonological awareness tasks. Using these data, we will also be exploring how children's polysyllables develop over time (using data from stage 3, 5 and 6).
    You can read more about these findings here:
  • Children's grammar: One assessment included in the Sound Start Study looked at children's ability to use grammatical word endings, such as plural (e.g. 'dogs'), regular past tense (e.g. 'jumped') and third person singular (e.g. 'washes'). Children found it most challenging to use grammatical word endings when the end of the word had two or more consonant sounds together. For example, it was harder for children to say 'dogs' than 'bees'. Children also found the regular past tense (e.g. 'jumped') the most challenging grammatical word ending to use. Finally, children's ability to use grammatical word endings could be explained by whether or not they could say two consonant sounds together (e.g. 'mask', 'ant').


Australian Government Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Belonging, being and becoming: The early years learning framework for Australia. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.

World Health Organization. (2007). International classification of functioning, disability and health: Children and youth version (ICF-CY). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.


Sound Start Study Final Newsletter


Sound Start Team