Teaching kids how to say speech sounds they can’t produce is called “Articulation Therapy.” As a speech-language pathologist I assess what sounds need to be learned and then systematically train a child how to produce them. It is one of the most rewarding things I do.
I love when it begins to click and I can see my clients producing their sounds correctly and confidently.
I have created several worksheets for you to use with your child or your students, but I thought that it would be helpful for me to explain the process of how to teach these sounds. There are many reasons a child might not be able to say a certain sound(s). Some of those may be related to apraxia of speech, phonological disorders, cranio-facial anomalies (i.e. cleft lip/palate), etc. Those special cases will not be discussed right now in this post. I will be explaining a traditional articulation therapy hierarchy. It is a brief and basic outline you can use when teaching your child or student to produce certain sounds he/she is struggling to say.
It is always a good idea to check with your local speech-language pathologist so they can fully assess your child’s speech and language needs. A speech therapist will usually give an Articulation Test to see which sounds are in error and in which part of the word (beginning, middle, or end). Once this is determined, they will see if those errors are typical for kids of that age or not. They will then recommend therapy if necessary.
Just to let you know – there are a few different ways of teaching speech sounds to kids. I’m going to walk you through what is known as the “Traditional Articulation Therapy” approach. Depending on the age, number of sounds in errors, and other underlying factors an SLP may choose to use a different approach – again, just another good reason to consult with your local SLP! They will be happy to help you and your child!
Okay, let’s go through each step of the traditional process of articulation therapy!
The first thing you want to do is see if your child can make the sound by itself. We call this first level ‘isolation’. See if they can copy you as you model how to say the individual sound. Have them really listen and watch you say the sound first and then copy you. If they can correctly imitate you – this is great! We would then say that they are stimulable for that sound, meaning they can physically produce it! (i.e. lift their tongue into the right spot in their mouth, etc.) Now you would begin to help incorporate that good speech sound into all levels of speech!
At the isolation level, you can begin to model the correct sound production in your everyday speech with your child. Try to highlight and emphasize it whenever you say it. Print out some of the worksheets that have their sound in them and talk about the words and the pictures with your child. Using the conversational re-cast is another great tool! It is so simple and effective. If you hear your child use an incorrect sound (gag for dad) you would say something like this:
Child: “I want to play with gag” (dad)!
Parent: “Yes, you can play with DaD after lunch!”
You just re-say or re-cast the sentence your child just said, BUT you emphasize the correct sounds. This is much better than asking your child to continually repeat their words or sentences – which can be so frustrating for kids. By hearing you say the correct sound immediately after they have made the error, they are getting the feedback they need!
If your child cannot imitate you at all, then you would want to begin teaching them where to put their tongue in their mouth in order to say the certain sound (i.e. behind upper teeth (for /t/ or /d/ sounds) or (in the back of the throat for /k/ or /g/ sounds).
The second level in the process of articulation therapy is called the ‘syllable level’. This is when we pair the individual sound (which they should be able to produce now) with a vowel. At this level, you would use the long and short vowel sounds along with the target sound.
Let’s say you are working on the /t/ sound. Here is how you introduce that sound in syllables in all positions (beginning, middle, and end). Have your child practice saying the sound at the beginning of the syllable: tay, tea, tie, toe, to. Then at the end of the syllable: at, et, it, ot, ut. Then finally in the middle of the syllable: atta, etta, itta, otto, uttu. Once your child can say the sound at the syllable level, you can move on to words!
Now it’s time to put that sound into real words! Start with the beginning of the word using the worksheet pages to make cards. Then move to the end and then the middle of the word. You can also go on a treasure hunt in your home and hunt for things that have the target sound in them! For example, you and your child (or client if you are an SLP) can search for things containing their sound. See how many you can find! You could even hunt for things with their target sound at the grocery store, at the park, in books, etc!
Now that your child has their sound down in single words, you are ready to increase the level of difficulty again by adding a few more words to the mix! A phrase is simply using their target sound in combination with a couple words. Let’s use the /t/ sound again as an example. Here are some phrases with the /t/ sound: “Too much fun”, “Take the car” “time to eat” “count to three” etc. Use words that have the target sound in the beginning, middle, and end.
The sentence level just adds more words to the phrase to make a complete sentence. This level is more difficult because it requires the child to maintain correct speech sound production while adding other words to express a complete thought! Whew! That can be a lot for some kids to remember! Just keep practicing! It may take lots of tries, but they will get it. Use words that contain their sound in all positions of the word (beginning, middle, and end). Have them practice saying their the target sound in the beginning of words in sentences: “A big _________” (insert the words: tree, toad, tiger, etc.). Then have your child practice using their target sound at the end of words in sentences: “The funny ______ is under the table” (insert final /t/ words: cat, rat, boat, etc.). Do the same for medial /t/.
It is fun when the sentences are silly! You can talk about why the sentences are silly. Ask your child why it’s silly for a boat to be under the table or what a funny boat looks like? Have them use their imaginations! They could draw a picture of a “funny boat” and tell you about it using their good /t/ sound.
6. READING (Or Oral Story-Telling for non-readers)
If your child can read, you will then be able to introduce books and have them read to you while continuing to produce their target sound correctly. If your child is not yet a reader, have them tell you stories they make up. They can also retell a story you have told them. I love this level because my students are professionals at telling me stories!
This is the last level! Once your child has progressed through reading/story-telling, they should be ready to use their target sounds during their everyday speech. You can continue to re-cast their sentences if they forget to use their correct sound. You can also remind them to use their “good __ sound!” if you hear an error. By this time, there should only be occasional errors. Producing their target sound should be almost effortless and very automatic.
Remember to have fun and to be patient! This can take a lot of time, but your child will get it! Please let me know how you are doing with this approach. I love hearing stories about how therapy is going!