What is an Articulation Disorder?

An articulation disorder involves difficulty correctly pronouncing consonant and or vowel sounds. Spoken sounds can be deleted, substituted, added, or changed. These errors make it difficult – if not impossible – for people to understand your child’s meaning, in which case the speech is deemed “unintelligible.” Speech-language pathologists use the term “unintelligible” to describe a child who cannot be understood by both family members and acquaintances.

Children struggling with misarticulations or unintelligible speech as they fall behind their developmental milestones, may be struggling with an articulation disorder.

How to Spot an Articulation Disorder

As children learn to speak and acquire new sounds from the ages of one to five, a certain amount of articulation errors is a natural part of the process. However, should these speech patterns continue beyond the expected age of mastery, a speech-language evaluation is necessary. When familiar and unfamiliar listeners struggle to understand your child’s speech or your child exhibits frustration or avoidance around communicating or repeating sounds, your child may be struggling with articulation. Here are some of the red flags to look for in your child’s speech development that may suggest an articulation disorder is present.

  • Omissions – Leaving out essential sounds from a word (For example: saying /tee/ instead of /tree/.)
  • Substitutions – replacing sounds with similar – but incorrect – sounds (For example: saying /fith/ instead of /fish/.)
  • Distortions – mispronouncing sounds (For example: saying /sock/ with a distorted /s/ sound that cannot be clearly distinguished as another sound.)
  • Additions – adding an unnecessary sound to an appropriately pronounced word (For example: saying /spaghettis/ instead of /spaghetti/)

What Causes Articulation Disorders?

Articulation disorders in children may be the result of oral structural deviations or weaknesses in oral musculature. Hearing loss, auditory linguistic processing disorders (phonological disorders), developmental disorders (ex. Autism), neurological disorders (ex. Cerebral palsy), genetic disorders (ex. Down syndrome), and motor-planning (apraxia of speech) may also contribute to a child’s articulatory challenges.

In addition, the physiology of your child’s mouth also plays an important role in his or her ability to correctly articulate sounds. A cleft lip or palate, tongue tie, missing teeth, or misaligned bite all have an impact on how sounds are made.

Articulation Disorder Treatment

A trained speech pathologist will consider all of the above criteria during a speech evaluation, which is the first step in determining whether your child’s misarticulations are the result of an articulation disorder. Treatment of an articulation disorder varies according to how the disorder manifests itself in speech, but it often involves isolating the problematic phoneme (unique sound), practicing production of that sound, and then practicing the sound in context.

As children grow, their speech and language habits become deeply engrained, meaning that the longer their mispronunciation goes unaddressed the harder it is to correct. While parents may smile as their child sweetly says /wabbit/ instead of /rabbit/, ultimately the child needs to be taught to produce the sound correctly before the habit becomes permanent.