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What is “articulation,” and when does poor articulation become a problem?

articulation“Articulation” refers to the way in which sounds, syllables, and words are formed with the coordination of many factors including movement of the tongue, lips, jaw, palate, and breath.  When considering whether or not poor articulation is a problem, there are two things that are important to remember.  First, it is not unusual for a child to have difficulties with at least some sounds as language unfolds (e.g., 3-year-old children are expected to be about 75% intelligible in spontaneous language use with adults that are not their parents).  Second, standardized articulation testing and therapy are often not formally undertaken until a child is about 3 years of age or older.  This is because prior to age 3, many errors of articulation are considered “developmental” (or “normal” or “expected”) and because engaging in successful articulation therapy requires a child to have certain interests or skills that are not often present prior to age 3 (e.g., sustained focus, attention to details, ability to rehearse/practice, etc.).

Just as with motor milestones where we expect a child to first sit, then crawl, and then walk, there is a typical sequence through which sounds emerge.  The sounds d, m, b, and p are among the first consonants to emerge.  The sounds s, r, and l are often not completely mastered until the early elementary school years, and all sounds (in the English language) are expected to be mastered by about age 8.

Is “baby babble” an articulation problem?  What are the types of sound errors?

“Baby babble” or “baby talk” generally refers to jargon that is produced as part of the typical sequence of language acquisition, but an articulation problem refers to specific patterns of errors.  Simply stated, errors can occur in three different categories: Omissions, Substitutions, or Distortions.  An
omission is when a sound is left out.  Commonly, omissions occur at the beginnings of words (e.g., “ar” for “car” and “at” for “cat”).  Substitution is when one sound is used in place of another (e.g., if a child substitutes “w” for “l”, the “little light” would sound like “wittle wight”).  Finally, distortion occurs when a child says a sound incorrectly, but it roughly approximates the target sound.

What causes problems with articulation?

Articulation problems may result from a number of different causes.  Articulation problems may occur as a result of impaired hearing, occasionally from a permanent hearing loss, but more frequently from a temporary, correctable hearing loss (e.g., chronic ear infections with fluid, excessive wax build-up).  Physical handicaps can cause articulation problems (e.g., cleft palate, cerebral palsy). It should be noted, though, that most of the time articulation problems occur absent of any obvious physical problem or disability.

Will my child outgrow an articulation problem?

A general trend of improvement is usually observed over time as children grow and mature, however some children need direct coaching/instruction to eliminate their articulation errors.  The catch-22 here is that we don’t necessarily know which particular children will improve on their own and to what extent.  If we assume that a 3-year-old child will simply outgrow his articulation problem, we could be correct, but we also could be sadly mistaken, and by the time he enters kindergarten he may not only have failed to improve, but his errors may have become more firmly entrenched bad habits.  For that particular child, speech therapy may, therefore, become much more challenging at age 5 than it would have been at age 3.  Although every child is different, the good news is that a speech pathologist can evaluate a young child and determine which errors are considered developmental (i.e., expected to evolve over time), and which errors are considered atypical (and expected to require coaching to improve).

What can I do to help my child correctly pronounce words?  What about a speech-language pathologist?

It is always helpful to set a good example and make sure that you try to speak as clearly as possible.  Be careful not to interrupt your child.  It is important to avoid being hyper-critical and excessively correcting your child.  It is also important to respectfully acknowledge mispronounced words and provide a positive model:  If Junior says “Bup” for “cup”, do not reply by saying, “No, it’s cup,” rather, simply say “Yes, cup,” and then extend the concept by saying, for example, “That is your big cup, and there is juice in that cup.” Finally, don’t let anyone tease or mock your child under any circumstances. You may want to contact a licensed speech-language pathologist for a formal evaluation of your child’s articulation and possible speech therapy.  Assuming a child has the prerequisite skills necessary for speech therapy with articulation (i.e., the ability to sustain attention, the ability to hear, and the motivation to imitate subtle variations in oral motor movements and sounds), the earlier treatment starts, the more rapid and effective the outcome. Proper articulation positively impacts social, emotional, and educational functioning.