The sound disorder your child is most likely to have: phonological disorder


Phonological disorder: the most common of speech disorders in young children, and yet perhaps the least understood by the common person. Let’s look at what it is and what to do if you suspect your child may have this problem.

Are you often interpreting your child’s speech for others?

If you are still having to interpret for your child and she is 4 years old or more, chances are your child has a phonological disorder.

How do children normally develop their sound system?

As parents will have observed, children are not born with an adult-like sound (or phonology) system. They don’t talk like adults and they are often hard to understand. This is because children use a simplified sound system. When analysed, we can see that they are substituting “harder” sounds (the sounds they will develop later on), with “easier” sounds (sounds they develop early on). Usually, these substitutions occur in groups, forming patterns of “errors”. These patterns are not really errors, and are referred to as “phonological processes” or “phonological patterns”. Normally-developing children eliminate these patterns over time as their speech becomes more adult-like and intelligible (able to be understood).

What is a phonological disorder?

A child has a phonological disorder when she continues to use these normal patterns of sound substitution past the time that it is normal to do so.

It is also important to note that some patterns are not part of normal development. Examples of abnormal phonological patterns include backing, (where a front sound is swapped with a back sound, eg. tap becomes “cap” or “gap”), and deleting the first sound from a word.

A phonological disorder is different to an articulation disorder. An articulation disorder (eg. a lisp) may only affect one sound or a couple of sounds and the problem is with making individual speech sounds. On the other hand, a phonological disorder usually affects a group of sounds and is a language-based problem, based in the mind. A phonological disorder is caused by difficulties organising the sound system into a set of sound contrasts.

Sometimes a child may have both a phonological disorder and an articulation disorder. Eg. they may swap long (fricative) sounds with short (stop) sounds, AND have an interdental “s” (lisp).

Is my child just being “lazy” with her speech?

Children with a phonological disorder may be physically capable of saying the sounds, but often don’t when speaking in conversation. A child may be able to say the sound only at the beginning of a word but not in the middle or at the end of a word. This leads many parents to wonder “Is my child just being lazy?” The answer is no. This characteristic of speech (being able to say the sound in some contexts but not others) is very normal and does not reflect a lack of effort. It takes time and practice to learn to say the sound in all positions of the word at all times.

What is the underlying cause?

We usually don’t know what causes a phonological disorder. We do know that it is a brain-based problem. It can run in families, suggesting a genetic role. In some cases there may be a problem perceiving speech in others and/or self, although the child’s hearing test may have shown normal hearing.

Why you may not notice this problem

Children with phonological disorders usually use patterns of sound substitutions that work a little like a code. Because their substitutions are often consistent, parents may be able to understand their child’s speech. However, they may find that they often have to interpret their child’s speech for other people, who don’t understand the “code” as well as them.

The other day I caught my eldest son perfectly simulating a phonological disorder. He was trying to sound like a toddler. I noticed that he was using several phonological patterns, and the result was that he sounded like a 2 year old. You don’t need to study university-level linguistics to crack the code. Parents do it all the time, when they interpret their young child’s speech.

Unsurprisingly, parents understand their own children much better than people who don’t know the child. This means that parents are sometimes unaware that their child has a speech problem. Some new Australian research has shown that parents were able to identify that their child had a problem in 88% of cases – although it’s worth considering the gap of 12% of parents who did not accurately identify that their child had a problem.

Signs that your child may have a phonological disorder

  1. Your 3-year-old is less than 75% intelligible to you
  2. Your 5-year old is not 100% intelligible to you
  3. Your 4-year old is reducing 2 consonant sounds to 1. Eg. saying “top” instead of “stop”.
  4. You are frequently interpreting your 3 year-old’s speech for others
  5. Your child’s speech sounds a lot more immature or difficult to understand than other children who are their age
  6. Your child’s teacher or doctor has expressed concerns about your child’s speech.

Please note that, just because your child shows none of these signs, doesn’t mean your child doesn’t have a problem. You may be a REALLY expert code-breaker and have no troubles understanding her, even though her speech is delayed! Also, just because your child ticks one of the boxes above, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she has a problem. However, experts agree that it is better to get a professional speech assessment done. If in doubt, check it out.

What to do if your child has a phonological disorder

Discuss your concerns with a Speech Pathologist. Therapy for phonological disorder involves teaching the child about the phonological pattern, teaching them to discriminate between the sounds they produce and the target sounds, saying the new group of sounds and, in time, self-monitoring and correcting their “errors”. In contrast to articulation therapy, where one sound is targeted, phonological therapy aims to promote system-wide change by working on a group of sounds at the same time.

Children who continue to have problems with their phonological (sound) system are at risk of problems learning to read and write. However, assessment and therapy can significantly reduce this risk.

For more Information:

Here are some wonderful tips from the renowned Speech Pathologist, Dr Caroline Bowen.

More information from ASHA (American Speech-Language Hearing Association)

Elimination of phonological processes – ages by which each process should be gone (Dr Caroline Bowen)

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