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“Articulation” is the technical term used to describe the production of vowel and consonant sounds for speech. These tend to develop at an uneven pace. Just as babies aren’t expected to walk at only 3 months of age, a toddler doesn’t learn to pronounce all speech sounds at once.

Speech-language pathologists have established general guidelines for when children typically develop their sounds and in what order. Although opinions vary somewhat as to when a child should have the sounds all mastered, they generally develop in the following order:

AgeConsonant Sounds
2 - 3p, b, m, h, w, d, n, k, t, f, vowels
3 - 4y, g
4 - 5l , v
5 - 6s, sh, ch, j, th, blends (st, pl, gr, etc.)
6 - 7ing, z, r, zh (i.e. “measure”)

An articulation disorder is when speech sounds don’t develop on time or they develop incorrectly.

In addition to individual sounds, speech-language pathologists also look at how well your child’s conversational speech is understood by you and others. This is called speech intelligibility, and it also develops over time.

A child is typically understood by parents:

By around age 4, a child’s speech should be completely understood by unfamiliar adults, even if the individual sounds aren’t perfect. If you frequently have to translate for others when your child is talking, this could be a sign your child needs help.

Children who aren’t understood well may become dependent on their parents for self-expression, which could affect their independence and self-esteem. Sometimes kids become frustrated over not being understood. They might act out with tantrums, pushing, hitting, or biting.

Factors such as a history of repeated ear infections, a hearing loss, or an immediate family member with a speech problem place a child at greater risk for an articulation disorder.

If you have any concerns about your child’s articulation, intelligibility, and sound development, discuss them with your pediatrician and then consult a speech-language pathologist for a speech evaluation and treatment as needed.

Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, January 2019

Takeaways

  • Articulation disorder is when a child is late learning to use vowel or consonant sounds or a child has difficulty being understood because of how they pronounce words.
  • Children with a lot of ear infections are at greater risk of articulation problems.
  • Speech-language pathologists evaluate and treat articulation disorders through speech therapy.

References

  1. American Speech-Language Hearing Association. Speech Sound Disorders: Articulation and Phonological Processes.

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