Articulation and Phonology: What It Is & What To Expect
Articulation is the act of producing speech sounds when talking to other people. When we refer to articulation, we are talking about how clearly words, phrases, or sentences are said.
Articulation requires a number of very carefully coordinated motor actions. First, we need to vocalize, which means we have to move air through the larynx (or “voice box”) in a way that creates sound. Then, we have to shape that vocalization into vowels or consonant sounds. We do this by moving our cheeks, lips, tongue, and soft palate to move the air around in our mouth so precisely that it forms the speech sounds in the words and sentences we have chosen to utter out loud.
Most of us do this quickly, effortlessly, and nearly unconsciously. Some children, though, have a hard time producing speech sounds accurately–their words are not clear and people have a hard time understanding what they are saying. These children are having difficulty with articulation or phonology.
Articulation or Phonology?
Before going much further, it’s important to note that speech-language therapists distinguish between articulation and phonology. Both of these words refer to a child’s ability to use speech sounds to produce words and sentences out loud. Articulation, though, refers to the actual formation of specific speech sounds in syllables, words, and sentences. Articulation therapy involves working with children to more accurately produce a specific speech sound such as “s” .
When we talk about phonology, on the other hand, we are talking about the patterns of errors children typically make when developing speech. For example, many young children will leave the final consonant off all their words– no matter what the consonant is.
This is a very typical pattern for early phonological development in toddlers, but if it lasts too long, it can be a problem. When we use a phonology approach to treating speech sound disorders, we focus less on the mechanics of any one speech sound and more on the patterns a child is using. A good speech-language therapist will help you understand whether your child has a phonological delay or an articulation disorder and will treat your child accordingly.
Children develop specific speech sounds and specific speech patterns in a developmental way. This means that speech sounds and patterns unfold in children over time, as children age. Here’s what we know about how speech sounds and speech patterns develop.
The following sounds are usually the first to develop: vowels, p, m, h, n, w, b, t, d
The next sounds to develop are usually: k, g, f, v, “ng” (as in ring), and y (as in “yellow”)
Finally, the hardest speech sounds are generally: r, l, s, “ch,” “sh,” j, “th” and “zh” (as in the end of the word “garage”)
If you are interested in finding out what age we typically expect a child to produce a certain speech sound, you can take a peek at this speech sound development chart developed by Eric Sanders in 1972. Before you look at it, though, it’s important to know how to read it. The beginning of each black bar represents the age at which 50% of children produce the sound correctly, while the end of each black bar represents the age at which 90% of children produce the sound correctly. As speech therapists, we generally don’t get too excited about a certain speech sound error until a child isn’t producing it when 80-90% of his peers are.
When we refer to speech patterns, we are talking about about how children put sounds together into different combinations. We refer to various sound combinations as “syllable shapes.” Syllables shapes are the way that consonants and vowels are put together to shape the syllable or word. As speech-language therapists, we have a short-hand way to discuss syllable shapes where C = a consonant and V= a vowel. A “CV” word would be a syllable with one consonant sound and one vowel sound: ma, ba, hi, bye. A “CVC” word would be a word with one consonant sound, one vowel sound, and one more consonant sound: pop, mom, dad. That being said, here are the syllable shapes that are easy and hard for children.
The easy ones usually develop first.
- Easiest Syllable Shapes: V-V (uh oh), CV (me), VC (up), CVC with the same consonant (mom) and CVCV with the same consonant (daddy).
- Harder Syllable Shapes: CVC with different consonants (pat), CVCV with different consonants (tummy), and CVCVCV words (banana)
- Hardest Syllable Shapes: Words with two or three consonants in a row (black, street) and long words (dictionary).
We also know that children use some very specific speech patterns when they first start talking. For example, we know that most children will “front” sounds. This means that they will produce speech sounds in the front of their mouth rather than in the back (for example, they will say “tup” instead of “cup,” using a /t/ for a /k/). This is totally normal and appropriate under the age of three. Speech-language therapists can listen to a child speak, analyze their speech sounds, and determine if the patterns a child is using are typical for that child’s age.
Finally, we also know a bit about how easily a child’s speech should be understood at certain ages. Intelligibility is the word we use to refer to the clarity of a child’s speech. If a child is 100% intelligible, we understand everything that child says. If a child is only 50% intelligible, however, we only understand 50% of what that child says.
Here’s what we know about intelligibility in children:
- A 2 year old is usually understood by others about 50% of the time
- A 3 year old is usually understood by others about 75% of the time
- A 4 year old is usually understood by others nearly 100% of the time
If your child isn’t meeting these milestones, don’t panic! Although speech sound development is relatively predictable, it’s also highly variable. If you are worried, however, talk with your physician about a speech evaluation by a speech-language therapist who can help you decide if your child’s articulation and phonology are typical.