Articulation Therapy: The Comprehensive Guide on What to Expect (for Parents)

Articulation Therapy: The Comprehensive Guide on What to Expect (for Parents)

As a pediatric speech-language pathologist (SLP), parents routinely tell me that their children’s teachers and friends are asking them to repeat words and phrases, yet the parents and caretakers themselves can understand their speech just fine.

What’s going on with this?

Well, you’re an amazing parent. You have a special, superpowered bond with your little one. However, this familial bond also means that you might understand your child when unfamiliar listeners don’t.

This is when you might begin considering a sidekick, and articulation therapy is ready to gear up!

Articulation Therapy and Child Development

These “unfamiliar listeners” in our lives play an important role in helping us gauge potential development and identify possible speech frustration.

We use this to our advantage in articulation therapy by comparing unintelligibility (the degree of being difficult to understand) and intelligibility (the degree of being capable to understand).

Using these terms, parents, caretakers, and speech-language pathologists can work together to identify opportunities to assist in our little one’s development. The following guidelines are used:

  • At two years of age, we look for children to be 50% intelligible to unfamiliar listeners
  • At three years of age, we look for children to be 75% intelligible to unfamiliar listeners
  • At four years of age, we look for children to be 90-100% intelligible to unfamiliar listeners

The feedback from unfamiliar listeners is so valuable because it can point us in the right direction to help reduce the frustration children often feel when they aren’t understood.

And since speech sounds are developmental, they need to be acquired by a certain age This is where parents and caretakers can save the day  — both in minimizing speech frustration and maximizing developmental progress!

So let’s dive in; clear speech for your little one is right around the corner.

First, we’ll cover an essential overview of the challenges your little one faces with speech. Second, we’ll go through what you can expect from articulation therapy. Finally, we’ll zoom out to give you a bird’s-eye view of the speech therapy process.

The Difference Between Articulation and Phonological Disorders

Solving speech problems for our little ones hinges on the ability to accurately discern between several different, sometimes minute, speech and language particulars. Conducting your parental due diligence now is an amazing way to begin the process. An accurate diagnosis guides the direction that speech therapy takes, leading to an effective outcome.

A speech sound is otherwise known as a phoneme. Phonemes are the literal sounds produced that differ from one another to create words and language.

A speech sound disorder is an umbrella term for speech disorders that can be broken down into two main categories: articulation disorders and phonological disorders. Each disorder calls for a different strategy.

Articulation disorders refer to difficulty in producing certain sounds. In these cases, the focus is on the particular sound, how it is being made, and remediating it specifically.

For example, the /r/ sound becomes a /w/ changing rabbit to “wabbit,” or, with a lisp, the /s/ may be coming out as a “th.”

Phonological disorders are patterned disorders, they tend to be more complex, and more goes into them. There are quite a few different patterned errors, but “cluster reduction” is one example.

Cluster reduction may present in an “sp” or “sm” sound uniting into one, turning spider into “pider” or small into “mall.” And, of course, this is just a sample; the list of phonological disorders goes on.

Accurately determining which direction to go in gives your child the boost needed to make progress in speech therapy while reducing the impact.

What Happens in Speech Therapy for Toddlers and Children

Since speech sounds are developmental and need to be acquired by a certain age, the specifics in therapy may differ from one child to the next.

For instance, an /m/ sound should typically be acquired by two years of age. If a four-year-old enters speech therapy and the initial evaluation identified that the /m/ sound is deficient, that will be addressed. If this same four-year-old, however, is identified with a deficient /s/ sound, that can likely wait since the /s/ sound comes later (around five years old).

Speech Helpers

Focusing on building intelligibility early in the process can erase unneeded frustration for our little patients while building momentum.

We use a powerful tool to do this – “speech helpers” to the rescue! These are articulation prompts that give children the exact tools they need to make progress with speech and language, and they work wonderfully.

Let’s take the /s/ sound, for example. Our “speech helpers” for the /s/ sound are our teeth, tongue, and lips. We want our teeth together, our lips smiling, and our tongue behind our teeth.

Often, we use visual feedback to promote this. Standing in front of a mirror, a child can see what’s happening.

Did the tongue come out?

Are the lips smiling?

Are the teeth together?

Give it a try; it’s fun! Even better yet, progress makes for smiling faces — ahhhh… — it feels good.

This is the type of activity you can expect in articulation therapy, and we haven’t even addressed all of the creative and fun ways you can practice at home. (Believe me, that’s the fun part.)

What is the Process of Articulation Therapy

Articulation therapy progresses in a similar way to most skills and ability improvement. After identifying the needs, you start with the basics and progress from there.

Isolated Sounds

An evaluation will identify which sounds should be addressed first and focussed on specifically. Do you remember the “speech helpers” from before? This is where they really shine.


Once the sound is perfected in isolation, we build on to that with syllable sounds. Examples with an /s/ sound may include “see,” “say,” and “sigh.”


Words use the sound in the initial, final, and then medial positions, building from syllables and progressing in difficulty through the placement of the sound in the word. Words are first used in isolation and then in short phrases.


Once short phrases are helping the next step is full sentences, and at this point, we are getting pretty close to the best part!..


Sentences move on to conversation. Once your child is able to make the sound in spontaneous conversation, the sound is “graduated” from, and it’s a job well done. At this point, we can repeat, if needed, with the next speech error.

Smiling After Speech Therapy

Giving your little one the gift of speech therapy doesn’t have to be at the sole suggestion of an unfamiliar listener.

You may notice other signs showing through, perhaps some increasing frustration, quietness, acting out… In short, less smiling.

Children do their best with the skills and abilities they have — speech therapy can supercharge those skills.

The next step is to team up with a speech therapist for a screening and evaluation.

Either way, you are already saving the day by exploring options and looking for ways to empower your little side-kick! Pat yourself on the back for taking this step, for modeling proactivity for your little one, and for laying the groundwork for many more smiles.