Articulation: what is it?

Articulation is a part of the “speech” side of speech-language therapy, and involves the movement of our articulators (e.g. lips, tongue, teeth) to form speech sounds. Articulation disorders are characterized by the inability to properly form speech sounds, and can include one or more of the following sound production errors: substitutions, omissions, distortions, or additions. For example, if your child is producing the “th” sound as an “f,” this would be an example of an articulation error through substitution. Different sounds have different ages of acquisition, or ages when these sounds are expected to be emerging and mastered by. Check out our blog post about speech sound ages of acquisition to learn more about the appropriate developmental ages for each speech sound!

Depending on the severity of the articulation disorder, the overall intelligibility of your child’s speech (i.e. the ability to which your child is understood by others) can be affected, resulting in frustration, decreased motivation to communicate, and low self-esteem. A speech therapist can provide you and your child with strategies and exercises to help correct their speech sound production errors.

What does articulation therapy look like?

In the traditional approach to articulation therapy, the errored sounds are targeted in a hierarchical order to support the child in learning how to accurately produce the target sound, starting at the simplest level (the sound in isolation) to more complex contexts (conversation). The entire hierarchy is typically as follows: sound in isolation, word level, phrase level, sentence level, and narrative/conversational level.  

Articulation Therapy Hierarchy

Where the speech therapist will choose to begin in the hierarchy depends on how stimulable your child is for a specific sound. Stimulability refers to your child’s ability to produce the target sound in isolation following a model. 

  1. If a child is working on the /s/ sound and is not stimulable for the sound in isolation, therapy would begin with a goal targeted toward producing /s/ in isolation.  
  2. Once this goal is achieved, the next step would be to target /s/ at the word level in all positions of the word (e.g. initial, medial, and final word positions).  
  3. Following mastery of /s/ at the word level (usually a criterion of 80% or higher consistently across sessions), the sound would be targeted in short 2-3 word phrases.  
  4. The /s/ sound would then be targeted at the sentence level until it is produced consistently at a criterion of 80% or higher. 
  5. At this point in therapy, the /s/ would start to be targeted in conversation and narrative (or story-level) tasks to support generalization of /s/ during unstructured contexts.  

 Generalization refers to your child’s ability to produce the target sound outside of the therapy setting and in their everyday interactions with others. This occurs through practice of the target sound in unstructured contexts, as well as an increase in self-awareness and self-correction skills to maintain accurate productions in conversation. Generalization and maintenance are two important factors of articulation therapy, because they allow your child to make true progress in their speech sound production and result in more “automatic” motor patterns.

 As your child begins to consistently produce the target sound accurately, the goal is to move from less structured tasks (e.g. drill activities such as picture cards containing the target sound) to more unstructured tasks (e.g. play activities such as coloring while telling a story) to support generalization of the sound. Your speech therapist will also recommend exercises specific to each sound being targeted to support generalization of the targeted sounds in conversation. It is important to carry over exercises into the home environment. When we learn a new sound, we are teaching a new motor pattern, and, like any skill that requires muscle memory, consistent practice is a must!