Articulation skills and disorders

Your articulation skills are among the first things people notice about you; perhaps the very first, if your initial contact is by phone. It may not be fair, it may not be right, but people with articulation disorders are often negatively judged by others as soon as they open their mouths.



All young children, when they are just learning to speak, mispronounce words. As they grow older and their articulation skills develop, their pronunciation usually becomes clearer. Bilabial sounds like /b/, /p/, and /m/ are generally mastered fairly early, followed closely by /d/, /t/, and /n/. Other sounds are generally added in order of difficulty.

Most English-speaking children develop mature articulation skills and are able to pronounce all sounds accurately by about age 7 or 8. However, some children may exhibit inaccurate or distorted production of one or more sounds after age 7 or 8, and may need speech therapy to correct these distortions. If your child is receiving speech therapy for articulation, here are some articulation therapy ideas you can try at home. And here's an idea for an articulation home program to use with older children with more advanced articulation skills.

Articulation disorders in children may be developmental in nature. Their early misarticulations become habitual and do not resolve with maturation. Some medical conditions, such as hearing loss, cleft palate, or brain damage from seizures, head trauma or strokes may also cause articulation impairments. Ankyloglossia, or "tongue tie," is a condition that may interfere with articulation skills in severe cases, but not to the extent once believed to be true.

The list below shows the ages by which children generally acquire the consonant sounds of Standard American English (SAE). Many children develop these articulation skills quite a bit earlier, since there is a range of what are considered normal articulation skills. The ages below are the point at which parents should consider speech therapy if their children have not acquired the sound in question.

    3 years: p, b, m, h, w

    4 years: d, n, k, g, t, ng, f

    5 years: y

    6 years: l

    7 years: s, sh, ch, z, j, v

    8 years: r, s, th (unvoiced, as in thin, or voiced, as in these), zh (as in genre)

Also, keep in mind that girls' articulation skills tend to develop earlier and faster than boys' articulation skills.

If your child is consistently misarticulating a sound but has not yet reached the age of mastery, there are a number of additional risk factors to consider. The more of these factors your child has, the greater the risk that the distortion will not resolve itself without speech therapy.

    Multiple speech sound errors

    Low stimulability (the child does not readily produce the sound correctly with modeling or prompting)

    History of hearing impairment or frequent ear infections

    History of neurological impairments

    Mental impairment

    History of other speech/language impairments

The list below shows some of the more commonly misarticulated sounds and common types of distortions:

th

Phonetic description: Interdental fricative, unvoiced (as in think, mouth) or voiced (as in these, feather).

Place of Articulation: The tip of the tongue is placed between the upper and lower front teeth; air is expelled through the mouth between the upper teeth and the tongue tip.

Common distortions: most commonly labialized as /f, v/ or stopped as /t,d/.

f, v

Phonetic description: labiodental fricative, unvoiced (/f/ as in fish) or voiced (/v/ as in very).

Place of Articulation: The lower lip is placed against the upper front teeth; air is expelled through the mouth between the upper teeth and lower lip.

Common distortions: most commonly stopped as /p, b/; less commonly backed as /s, z/.

sh, zh

Phonetic description: palatal fricative, unvoiced (/sh/ as in shoe) or voiced (/zh/ as in genre).

Place of Articulation: The tip of the tongue is raised and held close to the hard palate; air is expelled through the mouth between the hard palate and the tongue tip.

Common distortions: may be fronted as /s, z/ or stopped as /d/, but not usually as /t/. A child is more likely to pronounce shoe as doo, rather than too.

ch, j

Phonetic description: palatal affricate, unvoiced (/ch/ as in cheer) or voiced (/j/ as in jeer).

Place of Articulation: The tip of the tongue is raised to make contact with the hard palate, stopping the airflow through the mouth; as the tongue tip is lowered, air is released between the hard palate and tongue tip.

Common distortions: fronted and de-affricated as /s, z/, or stopped as /t, d/.

s, z

Phonetic description: alveolar fricative, unvoiced (/s/ as in say) or voiced (/z/ as in zebra).

Place of Articulation: Either the tongue tip or the anterior part of the tongue just behind the tip is raised and held close to the alveolar ridge (the small bump just behind the upper front teeth); air is expelled through the mouth between the alveolar ridge and tongue, then forced downward by the upper front teeth.

Common distortions: most commonly inter-dentalized as th (unvoiced or voiced), but also may be lateralized, producing a sound that has no corresponding letter in the English alphabet. Think Sylvester the Cat saying, "Sufferin' succotash!"

l

Phonetic description: alveolar lateral liquid, voiced.

Place of Articulation: The tip of the tongue is raised to press against the alveolar ridge; the sides of the tongue remain lowered, allowing air and sound to escape the mouth around the sides of the tongue.

Common distortions: most commonly glided as /w/ or as /ɣ/, formed like a /w/ except without rounding of the lips; may also be glided as /y/.

r

Phonetic description: palatal liquid, voiced.

Place of Articulation: The tongue is retracted and 'bunched' so that the main body of the tongue is below the soft palate and the tip of the tongue is below the back of the hard palate. The tip is raised so that it is just below the roof of the mouth but not making contact; the lips may be rounded and protruded, but this is not necessary acoustically.

Common distortions: may be glided as /w/, or as a more fronted /w/, almost a /v/; may also be absent following a vowel.

k, g

Phonetic description: velar stop, unvoiced (/k/ as in curl, coat) or voiced (/g/ as in girl, goat).

Place of Articulation: The rear, or base, of the tongue is raised to contact the soft palate. Air pressure builds behind the point of closure and is then released as the tongue base is lowered and the contact is broken.

Common distortions: most commonly fronted as /t, d/. The /k/ may also be glottalized in the middle of a word.

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list; any sound can be misarticulated any number of ways. I once treated a child whose articulation of /f/ involved raising the back of the tongue against the soft palate (as in the ng sound) and puffing air through the nose, so that fee sounded like hngee. This is pretty rare, however.

In addition to simple articulation errors, children may produce erroneous phonological processes. These are errors that affect entire classes of sounds rather than individual sounds.

Another disorder that affects articulation is apraxia of speech (AOS). This is a motor planning disorder that often results in inconsistent articulation of any given sound. Therapy for AOS differs from traditional articulation therapy, so it is important to have an accurate diagnosis and a therapist who knows how to plan appropriate therapy.

If a child with an articulation disorder has multiple distortions, the speech-language pathologist addressing articulation skills will usually target the earlier-developing sounds first. For example, if a child misarticulates the /k/ sound and the /s/ sound, the /k/ will be the first sound targeted because children are generally expected to master it by age 4, whereas the /s/ sound may be mastered by as late as age 8.

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