Speech Development: Recognizing and Correcting Articulation Issues

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Speech DevelopmentLast month we talked about what to do when your small child has sounds that are slow to emerge. This month we’re going to talk about what to do with a slightly older child that has some articulation issues. Because once a child is a little older, you can actually do some structure sound work that can help them acquire the stubborn letters.

While most developmental articulation charts will put the final sounds in English emerging when a child is seven or so, my clinical feeling is that in fact most sounds should be present or emerging by the time a child is five. And by emerging I mean that you are hearing it some of the time, or in some places (the beginning, middle or end of a word).

Note: If you are having a hard time understanding your child who is older than three, please speak to your pediatrician. You (as a parent) should understand the majority of what your three-year-old says, and people unfamiliar with your child should understand half. Pronounced unintelligibility beyond the age of three is not typical and should be investigated.

But let's say your child is four or five, is pretty understandable, but there are a couple sounds – or sound placements or combinations – that are being stubborn. Is there anything you can do? Of course there is!

The first thing to know is that drawing excessive attention to it won’t help. But there is some practice you can do. Start with some of the structured activities, and then once you know that your child can produce the sound with your help, you can start coaxing it into conversation.

  1. First, do some sound play: repeat favored words that have the target sound in them. For instance, for S you can make snake sounds, or for L you can sing about lollipops. Give your child’s ear some focused input to hear the shape of the sound in lots of environments. Sound environments that it is.
  2. Older children (older than five) can practice tongue shapes in the mirror.  Make the sound while watching your mouth in the mirror. What does it do? What does your tongue do? Once you’re confident with the articulation action, have your child watch you and try to imitate.
  3. When your child is substituting one sound for another ("F" for "Th" for instance, or "W" for "R"), have him watch you in the mirror making your sound while he makes his sound, then show him where the physical differences are. If he poked his tongue out for "S", then he’s doing something different than you are. If he bites his lower lip instead of sticking out his tongue, then his “thumb” is going to sound like “fumb.”

For children three or four-years-old, start trying to work a strong imitation into play. Sometimes sounds substitution is reinforced because people think it’s cute.  So when your son or daughter makes an error, avoid letting people reinforce how adorable it is (even though it kinda is!) because what’s adorable for a three-year-old can be torture for a child when they’re six or seven.

And finally, remember that your role as teacher will work best if it comes in small doses and in a positive framework. Work for a few minutes at a time, be positive and encouraging – never punitive – and celebrate each success. Because when you’re five and you’re fighting a lisp, each crisp "S" is a big deal indeed!

Does your child have a difficult time trying to articulate words? What steps are you taking to help your child correct the issue?

Lori is a speech-language pathologist and hosts the website Your Child Talking where she shares advice on speech and language for parents of both typically and atypically developing kids. You can also find her on twitter @YCtalking.

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