Have you ever wondered at what age your child should be making certain sounds? Or maybe you have wondered why your child is mispronouncing some sounds but not others. Maybe others are having a hard time understanding your little one, and you are left wondering what you can do to help improve your child’s speech. At Valued Voices, our self-created Articulation Screener helps answer these questions for you. Articulation screeners are a great tool used by Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) to identify which sounds your child can or cannot say and to determine if your child’s errors are developmentally appropriate or if they can use some support in the area of speech sound production. It is important to note, that a screener is a not a standardized evaluation, if this is needed, your SLP will certainly guide and support you in this direction.
Before we get into the details of articulation, articulation therapy and tips to support your kiddo, please understand that there are several other factors that can impact speech intelligibility, including but not limited to, hearing loss, oral motor deficits, sensory issues, and apraxia of speech. We will not be addressing any of these in this article.
Does your child have difficulty saying certain sounds? Is your child’s speech difficult to understand?
Children who demonstrate difficulty producing particular sounds and have difficulty being understood by others would likely benefit from a type of speech therapy referred to as articulation therapy.
Articulation: What is it?
Articulation is part of the “speech” side of speech and language therapy that involves the movement of our articulators (i.e. lips, tongue, teeth, jaw) to form speech sounds. Articulation disorders are characterized by the inability to properly form speech sounds, and can include one or more of the following production errors:
- Substitutions: “tat” for “cat”
- Omissions: “uh” for “up”
- Distortions: “thoap” for “soap”
- Additions: “buhlack” for “black”
Different sounds are acquired at different ages of acquisition, meaning each sound is expected to emerge and be mastered by a certain age. For a free copy of our speech sound chart, sign up for our email list today!
What is a Phonological Process?
Phonological processes are patterns of sound errors that children use to simplify speech as they are learning to talk. Complex words are simplified in a predictable way until the coordination of the oral motor muscles (i.e. tongue, lips, jaw, teeth, palate) develops to articulate clearly. For example, your child may produce “banana” to “nana” or “bue” for “blue.”
Phonological processes are considered age appropriate, until they persist beyond a certain age. For example, if your 5 year old still uses the phonological process of “fronting” (saying “tootie” for “cookie”) that would be considered delayed since most children eliminate that process by the time they are 3.5 or 4 years of age Further, a phonological delay may be considered if your child is using patterns of speech that are not expected in speech development.
If your child is using multiple phonological processes together, this usually decreases your child’s intelligibility, making them difficult to understand. Depending on the severity of your child’s overall intelligibility, this can result in in frustration, decreased motivation to communicate, and low self-esteem. An SLP can guide you and your little one by giving you strategies and exercises to help and to empower your child’s voice, because every voice deserves to be acknowledged.
If you’re uncertain how intelligible your child should be based on their age, take a look at our chart below. As always, keep in mind, milestones are meant to be a guide to support you and your kiddo. Each child has their own set of unique strengths and ways of developing.
Articulation Delay or Phonological Disorder?
Sometimes, it can be tricky to know if a child presents with an articulation delay or a phonological disorder, both of which are considered speech sound disorders. To put it simply:
- Articulation disorders manifest when a child has difficulty producing a certain sound (or sounds) and can be remediated by addressing the sounds in error.
- Phonological disorders are more complex, they are patterns in a child’s speech used to simplify speech sound production. Many children with phonological disorders present with unintelligible/unclear speech as they often present with multiple speech sound errors and phonological processes.
So, to sum it up:
A speech sound disorder is considered an articulation disorder when:
- Speech sound errors persist beyond the average age of mastery
- Intelligibility is mild to moderately impacted
A speech sound disorder is considered a phonological disorder when:
- Phonological processes persist beyond the average age of elimination
- Phonological processes/patterns are used that are not usually seen
- Intelligibility is highly impacted due to use of multiple phonological processes
Remediation or therapy for each speech sound disorder will vary depending on each child’s case. Typically, children with an articulation disorder respond well to articulation therapy where sounds in error are targeted one or two at a time. Now, let’s dive a bit deeper!
What Does Articulation Therapy Look Like?
The first thing we want to know is what sounds is your child having difficulty with, most parents usually can list this without a problem. Here comes an extra layer: do you know what position of the word (beginning, middle, or end) your child is having difficulty with and do you know what sound they are substituting in its place? With a screener and/or formal articulation evaluation, an SLP can help answer these questions for you. But what’s next? Here are a few things we need to know:
- Stimulability: Is your child stimulable for the sound given a direct model, meaning if they say “tea” for “key” and you give them a model for /k/, can they produce the sound with direct imitation? If so: CELEBRATE! This is a huge first step. If your child cannot imitate the sound, no need to worry, that just means we will have to do a little extra work with the articulators (tongue, lips, jaw palate, teeth, etc.) to get them just in the right spot, this is referred to as elicitation.
- After a sound is learned, meaning your kiddo can imitate the sound, then practice the sound in isolation. Practicing a sound in isolation means saying the sound without adding a vowel. So, in our example above, your child is no longer producing “kuh” but they are just producing /k/ in isolation. Once your child can successfully repeat the sound with 90% accuracy, over a few times of practicing, you can move on.
- After the step of isolation, move the target sound to syllables. This means that you are putting vowel sounds before and/or after the target sound, make sure to use all the vowel sounds-long and short. I always start where my kiddo is most successful. Taking our example target sound /k/, here is what this may look like:
- o Initial Syllable Production: kee, koo, kay, ki, etc.
- o Medial Syllable Production: akee, okoo, eekay, ooki, etc.
- o Final Syllable Production: eek, ook, ak, ik, etc.
- Once your kiddo can say the sound in syllables, you can move onto sounds in words, again, we are targeting all positions that are in error.
- From there, you can move onto sounds in phrases, sentences, stories, conversation and finally…GENERALIZATION! Generalization is when your child uses their target sound across all contexts of language and with various communication partners.
How do I Support My Kiddo’s Speech at Home?
Articulation practice is all about teaching new motor patterns of our mouth, and to establish a new motor pattern you need daily practice! Spending 5-10 minutes a day, every day to practice these new motor patterns can significantly increase your child’s progress with their articulation skills. Below are some fun and engaging ideas to work on your child’s speech skills at home or on the go when they are not in speech therapy:
- I Spy: This is a fun way to work on a target sound or sounds, while keeping it engaging for your kiddo! This is a great game to play in the car, on a walk, or in the comfort of your home.
- Charades: Take turns acting out target words and guessing what the word is, this is great articulation practice!
- Crafts: Make a craft (painting, necklace, flower crown, superhero cape, etc) and for each piece of the craft, practice your target sound.
- Flashlight Search: Tape target words to the wall, turn off the lights and use a flashlight to find the words.
- Roll-A-Dice: Roll a dice and say your target word that many times (you can use include this trick for any of the activities suggested here).
- Scavenger Hunt: Search your home, park, restaurant, store, or car for things that include your target sound! Take a picture or draw the item to create your own sound book or self created worksheets! Then, practice the entire list including all your speech sounds.
- Stacking Cups: Tape target words into cups and build a tower, see how many words you can say and cups you can stack before it falls down!
- Bowling: Tape target words to the bottom of bowling pins or plastic cups and say the words that you knock over!
- Basketball: Write down targets on a piece of paper, say the word, crumple up the paper and toss it in the hoop. If you want to bump it up and have your kiddo work on the next level (word, phrase, sentence, conversation), you can make those worth more points!
- Picture Collage: Cut out pictures from magazines of things that include your kiddo’s target sound.
- Mystery Box: Place items or photos that include your child’s target sound in a box, shake it up, describe it and have your kiddo guess what the object is using correct articulation.
- Categories: Pick a category and name as many items in that category as you can that contain your target sound.
- Go Fish: Use target sounds, making two copies of each word and play Go-Fish while your kiddo practices their target sound (you can use the same cards to play Memory too!)
- Board Games: You can use any board game and practice target sounds on each turn.
- Books: Using books is not only a great way to work on target sounds, but it is great way to work on language skills too!
Equally, if not more important than the fun games, is making sure we understand a few key elements that are necessary in establishing articulation practice at home:
- Make speech therapy practice as part of your daily routine
- Keep it short, aiming for 5-10 minutes a day. If you get at least 3 good practice times in over the week, you are significantly boosting your child’s progress towards their goals.
- Frequency over duration! Three times a week for 10 minutes is better than one time 30 minutes.
- Make it fun! Get the entire family involved or make it a special time with you!
- Meet your child where they are at. Articulation is a hierarchy and so it is important you be practicing at just the right step for your child. If your child is in speech therapy, be sure your SLP is guiding you on exactly what level you should be practicing at home.
I always explain to families that although articulation seems simple, it in fact includes many layers and nuances that can make it quite complex. As always, if your child is having difficulty in this area, consult with a professional for some added support and see if speech therapy is right for your child.. Every child’s voice deserves to be heard and acknowledged, and with your help and support I know they will!
Sholeh Shahinfar, MA, CCC-SLP, RYT
Sholeh Shahinfar is the founder of Valued Voices, and a licensed Speech Language Pathologist, Child Communication Specialist and Certified Oral Motor Therapist. She is passionate about uplifting children’s voices in the world and inspiring self-expression. In her free time, she loves going to the ocean, exploring nature with her pup Kobe, and spending time with her family and friends!