Articulation versus Phonology – Let’s Articulate the Difference

There are several reasons why children’s speech may be unclear, or why they cannot produce all of the sounds in the English language. It can be cumbersome explaining these reasons to parents, who may look at me blankly when I say that their child has a phonological delay or disorder. Broadly speaking, phonology refers to the study of speech sounds and the rules that govern how sounds are combined in meaningful ways (to create words, sentences, and conversations). When looking at the speech of typically developing children, we see that many speech errors can be grouped or classified in particular ways as they acquire more adult-like speech forms. Here is an example of an error you may see in a 2-3 year old child:

Adult: “Spider!” Child: “Pidew”

The child cannot yet produce the more complex adult form and simplifies it by deleting a consonant at the beginning and changing the ‘r’ at the end to a vowel sound. SLPs use knowledge of common phonological patterns to help determine whether or not a child is following a typical developmental path. There are also some phonological patterns that are not usually seen in children; therefore, when these are observed in a child it can signal atypical speech development.

Articulation errors differ from phonologically based errors because we see that the sound or sounds in question are still within the same phonemic class, but are produced in an atypical way. Children who have a lisp or a persistent ‘r’ distortion are common examples of articulation difficulties.

Blooming Jack-o-lanterns

Fall is in the air and many children will be visiting pumpkin patches in the next few weeks – either for a class field trip or as a family excursion. The following is a list of questions that parents/teachers can use as a guide while carving pumpkins. The questions are organized into different Thinking Skills, as proposed by Benjamin Bloom, a well-respected researcher in the field of education. I have written a few questions under each section. It is not necessary to use every question before proceeding to the next level. Rather, encourage your child to explain their answers as much as possible, providing support and guidance as needed. These questions may best be suited for children in the primary school years (ages 5 to 8) but can be used for older children who are experiencing language delays.

What materials do we need to carve a pumpkin? (e.g., newspaper, marker, knife/carving tool, spoon)
What is inside of the pumpkin? (e.g., seeds, pulp)

What are the steps to carving a pumpkin? (Encourage any logical sequence)
How do we scoop out the seeds/pulp (e.g., with our hands/spoon)

What would happen if we used a plastic knife? (e.g., knife would break; we would not be able to cut the pumpkin)
What other foods might feel like the inside of a pumpkin? (Answers will vary)
How will we roast the pumpkin seeds (e.g., in the oven)

This jack-o-lantern has two eyes. How many eyes would there be if we carved 3 pumpkins? (6)
How does a pumpkin grow? (Encourage any logical response)

What could we make with the pulp and seeds? (e.g., roasted pumpkin seeds, pumpkin pie)
How is a pumpkin similar to a watermelon? How is it different? (Answers will vary)
Draw a creative face for your jack-o-lantern (the child may draw a number of different faces on paper first)

What is your favourite part about Halloween?
Do you like scary or silly jack-o-lantern faces? Why?
Is carving a pumpkin a good activity for young children to do on their own? Why or Why not?

Happy Halloween!

Slow and steady wins the race

I decided to begin this blog with some reflections on how this phrase has proven true time and time again in my own life as well as in the lives of the families that I work with. It seems that we are always battling time. If you are the parent of a child with a speech delay, it can feel like there are so many sounds to tackle. If you are the parent of a child with autism, it can feel like there are so many areas to develop, that a sense of urgency and panic can overwhelm you. If you are the parent of a child who is not yet talking or has limited language, it can feel uncertain as you constantly wonder whether you will ever be able to have a normal conversation. Even as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), I often feel overwhelmed. When a child sees me for the first time and is completely unintelligible, I see a clock ticking. Where do we begin? Can we make enough progress? Will this child be ready for kindergarten? How fast can we move? And the list goes on and on.

So, I am learning to put the brakes on. And I encourage the families that I work with to do the same. I have discovered that when you stop using some static timeline to which a child must adhere to, change will happen. This is the irony in what we do as SLPs. Too often, the faster we want change, the slower it happens. Yet, when we take the time to do a thorough assessment, make an accurate diagnosis, include parents/caregivers to create realistic goals, and trust that development will occur if we gently and strategically help it along its way, change does happen.

But this need for speed is all around us. It is our culture. We have been so focused on preparing children for the school system that we have forgotten that typical development presents us with a framework, steps to guide us along the right path. Children with speech/language delays need time to move and make change. And this is the beauty of what we do as SLPs. No, we do not follow a cookbook when treating a child with a speech or language disorder. It is dynamic – it is sometimes trial and error, but we always use the child’s current level of functioning as our guide and in the back of our minds we are combining theory, knowledge of typical development, evidence from research, and clinical judgment. At times, it is not easy – but it is worth it. There is nothing greater than seeing a child win the race.

More is not necessarily more

A recent article by Lauren Lowry from Then Hanen Centre® got me thinking about the concept of more.

With regards to child development, many parents and professionals often view more as a good thing when trying to expand their child’s language. More therapy, more books, more extracurricular activities, more play dates, more of anything language related should in theory result in a child having a larger vocabulary, as well as a better head start for school. But, this article suggests that while parents should repeat common words frequently during the toddler years (quantity), it is important that they move towards quality during the preschool years. During the preschool years, children have learned many common words and are ready for more sophisticated words. Here are some ways to improve the quality of language input when communicating with your child:

  • Create new experiences with your child – Allow your child to join in while you are baking/cooking or working on a project. Comment on what you are doing and allow your child to participate when able. Try and incorporate a few new words, repeating them in different contexts and sentence structures. Think about going beyond just object names – you could use action words, describing words, or questions.
  • Follow your child’s lead during play. Research has shown the importance of joint attention that focuses on children’s interests rather than requiring children to refocus their attention. This means that children will learn a word more readily when their attention is directed at a particular object/situation than when an adult requires them to shift their attention to something else (that the adult may find interesting!).
  • Consider who your child communicates with – The Developmental Psychologist Vygotsky used the term ‘zone of proximal development’ to describe where children learn best. With respect to language, children will learn language best if their communicative partner uses language that is slightly beyond their current level. For example, if a 3 year old is speaking in 3-4 word sentences, a parent or caregiver may use sentences that are 5-6 words in length.

Is two the new ten?

I have spoken to several parents of young children with speech/language delays who are getting mixed messages about the nature of language development. Our culture seems to be placing more and more emphasis on academic readiness and static learning – such as letter naming, matching, reading, and labeling flash cards. While teaching these skills is not inherently ‘bad’, we need to be cognizant of the fact that children learn language best when they see it function in the moment, particularly during the early years (toddlers, preschoolers).  Language is itself a social construct that helps people build conversation, share ideas and emotions, and direct the attention of others. Toddlers, for example, are beginning to build conversation when they point out things in their environment to direct a caregiver’s attention.

And the good news is that facilitating language development was never meant to be so complicated. Instead of opting for fancy computer games, talking books, apps on your iphone, or flashcards, here are some ideas to enhance your child’s language during everyday routines and interactions.

  • Offer your child choices during snacks or activities (e.g., Do you want crackers or cheese?)
  • Give your child a reason to communicate (e.g., Put a desired toy in sight but out of reach)
  • Spend some time playing face to face with your child, showing an interest in what they are doing or looking at. Try to minimize questions or direct the play. Use language to comment on what you or your child are doing (e.g., Uh oh the blocks crashed!).
  • Use language that your child could imitate if he/she wanted to – instead of speaking in long, complicated sentences, try reducing your phrase length and repeating key words frequently (while ensuring that your sentences are still grammatically correct).