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Speech Sound (Articulation) Disorders

What is articulation?

Articulation is the process of making speech sounds by moving the tongue, lips, jaw, and soft palate. Children learn speech by imitating the sounds they hear as you talk about what you are doing during the day, sing songs, and read books to them.

Speech sound development

Children begin developing speech as an infant. By 6 months of age, babies coo and play with their voices, making sounds like "oo,” “da,” “ma,” and “goo." As babies grow, they begin to babble, making more consonants like "b" and "k" with different vowel sounds.

Although children begin to develop speech as infants, they do not learn to make all speech sounds at one time. Your child will continue to imitate sounds and word shapes. These imitations will turn into natural, unplanned speech.

Every sound has a different, but predictable, range of ages for when the child should make the sound correctly.

General articulation milestones:

  • By age 3, speech should be understandable about 80 percent of the time.
  • By age 4, speech should be understandable almost all the time, although there may still be sound errors.
  • By age 8, children should be able to make all of the sounds of the English language correctly.

Articulation errors are a normal part of speech development. Most children will make mistakes as they learn to say new words. Not all sound replacements and omissions are considered speech errors. Instead, they may be related to a dialect or accent.

The chart below gives age ranges for when children learn to make certain speech sounds.

Speech Sounds by Age

These are general guidelines for speech sound development. Talk with a speech language pathologist or other health care provider if you have concerns about your child’s speech.

Articulation delays and disorders

An articulation delay or disorder happens when errors continue past a certain age. These errors can occur at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. The 3 most common articulation errors are:

  • Replacing one sound for another, like “bacuum” for “vacuum.”
  • Omitting a sound, like “bue” for “blue.”
  • Distorting a sound is when you recognize the sound but it sounds off. A lisp is a distortion of the “s” sound and is caused when the tongue sticks out past the teeth.

Causes of articulation delays and disorders

For many children, the causes of speech sound disorders are not known. Your child may not learn how to make the sounds correctly or may not learn the rules of speech on their own. Physical problems can also affect articulation. These physical problems include:

  • Illnesses that last a long time. Being in a hospital or having a serious illness may reduce the normal activities and interactions that help children learn speech and language.
  • Hearing loss. Speech is learned by listening. Hearing loss and ear problems such as frequent ear infections can slow down speech sound development in young children.
  • Brain tumors. Tumors may affect the speech centers of the brain. They also can weaken muscles of the lips, palate, tongue, or vocal cords.
  • Structural differences. The physical structure of the jaw, tongue, lips or palate can affect articulation. Structural differences due to injury or birth defects such as cleft lip and palate can lead to speech delays or disorders.
  • Developmental or neurological disorders. Disorders such as stroke, cerebral palsy, autism, or brain injury can cause speech sound problems.
  • An articulation delay or disorder might be a problem for children if they:
    • Cannot be understood; they may get frustrated or act out because they cannot express themselves.
    • Avoid situations where they need to speak.
    • Get embarrassed or worried about how they sound or because others make fun of the way they speak.

What you can do to help

  • Talk to your child during playtime. This is a chance to make talking fun and model correct speech sounds.
  • When talking, face your child and position yourself near eye level.
Toddler playing with caregiver

Mother and toddler playing, face to face, eye level

  • Do not interrupt or constantly correct your child.
  • Do not reinforce errors by imitating them. Instead, model the correct way to make the sound. For example, if your child says, “That’s a wellow duck,” you say, “Yes, that’s a yellow duck. A yellow baby duck. The sun is yellow, too.”
  • Praise your child for saying the sound correctly or give encouragement for trying.
  • Read to your child. Use reading to surround your child with the targeted sound. For example, read Goodnight Moon if the child is working on the /g/ sound.
  • Use meals, bath time, bedtime, playtime, and other daily routines to work on speech. These activities can be great learning moments.

If you have concerns about your child’s speech, talk to your doctor. It is important to identify and treat any physical conditions that may be contributing to articulation delays.

A speech language pathologist can help assess whether your child has an articulation disorder and develop a speech therapy plan.

Key Points

  • Articulation is the process of making speech sounds. Articulation errors are a normal part of speech development.
  • Speech sound errors or articulation disorders can happen for a variety of reasons. Often, the cause is not known.
  • There are ways you can help your child with speech sounds.
  • Your doctor may refer you to a speech language pathologist for speech therapy to help with an articulation delay or disorder.

Reviewed: August 2022