With contributions from Vinita Kokatnur-Lemercier, M.A., SLP-CCC
What is Articulation in Childhood?
Articulation in childhood is the clarity of speech and the pronunciation of words that are intelligible to others.
When speech sound articulation is an issue, family members and friends may say that the child ‘sounds so cute!’ Perhaps your child talks in a way that others don’t understand.
“One sign that your child may have a problem articulating sounds and speaking clearly is that people may say your child sounds like a cute cartoon character.”
It may sometimes sound like the child is saying words that don’t exist in your language. Your child may be using baby-talk long after their toddler years are over.
Typically developing children may have some sound errors and sound substitutions in the toddler years.
A two-year-old can be very hard to understand, or they may say “wuv” for “love” or “wabbit” for “rabbit.” Some children have crystal clear speech sounds at age two, while others still substitute sounds at age four and older.
When children in kindergarten have unintelligible speech, they may be diagnosed with a language disorder or communication disorder and may qualify in school for help from a speech pathologist.
A sound substitution or two is not a significant concern in kindergarten, but children should be easy to understand. Ideally, children who are hard to understand, even at age two, should get speech therapy to correct articulation errors before they become problematic.
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Symptoms of Articulation Issues in Children
- Struggles with correct pronunciation of letter sounds: Saying ‘W’ for ‘R,’ Saying, ‘wowuld’ for ‘world,’ Saying ‘gowul’ for ‘girl,’ Saying, ‘Kewee’ for ‘Kelly,’ Saying, ‘dis’ for ‘this’ when it is not appropriate for their chronological age
- Others do not understand your child’s speech: Speaking in a way that is hard to understand. People are often asking the child to repeat words or phrases
- Your child saying words that don’t exist: Talking in a way that others don’t understand or using sounds that do not form real English words
- Baby talk: Seeming to be using baby-talk long after their toddler years are over
- Struggles to use lips or move the tongue appropriately: Trying to make speech sounds, but the letters won’t come out right. It may be that your child has to stop and try to figure out how to say a word
- Word choice: Having so much trouble pronouncing a word that they have to change the word to one that is easier to say
- Speech might sound “sloppy” or lazy when tired: Getting tired and sounding more unclear while speaking. You may notice their speech sounds worse at the end of a long day
- Omits sounds: Saying, ‘sool’ for ‘school’ or ‘ish’ for ‘fish.’ The child may have so much trouble with certain sounds that they leave the sound out of the word completely
- Trouble understanding speech: Taking forever to ‘get the message’ your child is trying to send. It may take an excessive amount of repetition and clarification to understand what your child means to say
The Four Main Causes of Articulation Issues in Childhood
- Your child may struggle with how to shape their mouth to speak clearly.
This struggle can be due to several factors.
- tongue movement issues – such as thrusting or a lateral lisp
- motor-based disorders – such as dysarthria or apraxia
- structural disorders – such as a high palatal arch or cleft palate
- or a sensory disorder – such as a hearing problem
- Falling down and knocking out a tooth or changing dental work may affect articulation. If a child is losing teeth and has dental appliances in their mouth, it can cause temporary speech issues that shouldn’t be confused with a true speech articulation disorder.
- Speech sound development might be delayed. A child with delayed speech articulation may also have a developmental disorder, a genetic disorder, or a neurological disorder. If your child has pervasive delays across many areas, talking to your doctor about related medical needs will be important.
- An impairment in the formation of sounds: A child may have a specific type of impairment, like only for sounds in the back of the mouth, like ‘k’ and ‘g.’ Other kids have an impairment for sounds in the front of the mouth, like ‘t’ and ‘d.’ If a child was trying to say a ‘back of the mouth’ sound in the front of the mouth, a child would say “tat” for “cat” or “doose” for “goose.”
“Articulation issues are amenable to intervention in speech therapy. These skills are very important to treat as challenges here can significantly impact an individual’s self-esteem and confidence socially and academically.”
The Four Things to Do About Articulation Issues in Childhood
The light at the end of the tunnel is that most speech articulation issues are treatable. If your child is struggling, get help now. Do not delay. Most children will show dramatic improvements or complete remediation of deficits in speech therapy.
Here are the top four things you can do to help your child now.
- Start early. Early intervention is important and often brings about improvement or total remediation of these issues. It is wise to begin work with a speech therapist at a young age. No harm will be done if you have speech therapy for a two-year-old who makes quick progress and meets age expectations. There is no need to wait.
- See a speech therapist. A speech therapist can put specific strategies into place to help change sound formation while also working on changing the patterns in the brain to improve articulation. This process can make a world of difference for your child as they are more easily understood. It can be overwhelmingly frustrating to feel like others are not listening to you or that you cannot communicate. Speech therapy can be a huge help.
- Have your child imitate you. If your child can imitate you and correct errors, sometimes treatment can be informal. A parent can introduce a home program with guidance from a professional. Use clear language with your child and resist the urge to imitate the cute pronunciation they use.
- Talk to your child’s teacher or pediatrician to identify a speech pathologist. You may be able to find a good therapist either at school or in the community, or both. You can also refer to trusted and professional websites, such as the American Speech and Language Hearing Association, to find a speech therapist in your area.
When to Seek Help for Articulation Issues
If your child is having difficulty correctly making sounds after the age of three years, it is best to get some professional advice. Some kids quickly learn correct speech intelligibility, but others need intervention, and the earlier, the better.
Professional Resources for Articulation Issues
- Speech-language pathologist: to provide therapy for articulation and language problems
- Orofacial myologists: to consider medical issues impacting speech ability
- Orthodontists: to consider corrections to jaw, teeth, or mouth that may help speech ability
- Dentists: to consider dental issues that may impact speech ability
- State health department website: to look for allied health services under speech-language pathology
Similar Conditions to Articulation Issues
- Writing problems: children with articulation issues may make errors when speaking or writing
- Reading problems: children with articulation issues may make errors when speaking or reading
- Spelling issues: children with articulation issues may struggle to spell words accurately
- Social anxiety: children with articulation issues may demonstrate decreased confidence when communicating with others and may avoid social situations due to fear of being mocked
Online Resources for Articulation
American Speech and Language Hearing Association
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