What Is Articulation? And What Causes Speech Problems?

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Articulation is the word used to describe the way in which a speech sound is produced. Each speech sound is made by the unique positioning of the articulators (parts of the mouth) as air passes through the ‘aperture’ made by the articulators. Each sound can be classified, by where it is made in the mouth or nose, how the air passes through and whether or not voice vibration occurs. Speech Pathologists use symbols called phonetics, to notate the sounds a person is making, e.g. do you know what these sounds are?

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What is an articulation problem?

Articulation disorder can occur in people of any age.

  • Do others find it difficult to understand you? Is it hard for you to understand a friend or family member?
  • Does the speech sound fuzzy distorted or slushy?
  • How easy or difficult is it to understand the speech?
  • Does it matter? Why?
  • Is there a medical or other diagnosed condition that can explain the speech problem?
  • Does it sound typical for age or gender?
  • Is the speech accented due to speaking English as a second language?

It may help to be assessed by an experienced Speech Pathologist who can identify what is causing your speech difficulties and design a treatment program. 

Articulation disorders or pronunciation difficulties can be caused by many things. Let’s talk about children.  As children are developing speech, there are general rules of thumb to follow to know when to expect children to be able to pronounce and use certain sounds correctly.

A good website to check is: www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/speechsounddisorders

All children make sound errors when they are developing. When these speech sound errors persist beyond the expected time, they may become a problem, and most particularly because they affect the child’s intelligibility, i.e. how well they can be understood.

These are key questions to ask:

  • How well can you understand what your child says?
  • How well can others, especially unfamiliar people understand what your child says?
  • Is this typical for their age?

By the time a child is 3, we should understand much of what they say, by the time they are 4 and 5 years even an unfamiliar listener should understand all of what they say, even if articulation is not yet perfect. Naturally, this may also be linked to the way a child’s language and use of words and sentences is developing.

When assessing articulation in children it may be necessary to look at their language development as well. Sound errors can be classified as articulation (they way sounds are produced) or phonological disorders (sound patterns) or motor speech (voluntary control of speech) or myofunctional (maladaptive patterns of the tongue lips or jaws related to upper airway disorders, facial growth anomalies of habits). By age 8 your child should be using all their speech sounds correctly.

There are other diagnoses for speech sound difficulties e.g. dyspraxia or dysarthria. A Speech Pathologist makes this diagnosis. However, our motto at Well Spoken is: treatment as early as possible, don’t wait!.

Because of the strong links between early speech sound development and literacy and learning issues at school, it is critical that your child has had the best chance at developing normal speech skills by the time they go to school. There are many reasons why a speech disorder may be present and you will need an assessment by a skilled Speech Pathologist who can determine the nature of your child’s difficulty and design a treatment approach that will work for you and your family. 

What causes speech problems?

Delays and difficulties with speech development can be a result of developmental disorders e.g. autism, genetic syndromes e.g. Downe’s syndrome, hearing loss, illness, neurological disorders like cerebral palsy, chronic medical conditions like middle ear fluid or infections. But simple developmental delays can also lead to speech problems also in absence of any other conditions.

School age children whose early childhood speech errors have persisted are unlikely to resolve or correct these speech problems on their own. Developmental errors may persist beyond the expected time, and whilst some speech problems can sound ‘cute’ on young children, as they get older and reach adolescence and adulthood, these speech problems may no longer appear so cute, detracting both socially and with employment opportunities as adults. Speech problems in school age children may be caused by many different factors, and assessment by an experienced Speech Pathologist is necessary to form an accurate diagnosis and design an appropriate treatment program.

How is an assessment done for an articulation problem?

A test will be chosen, suitable for the person’s age, that requires the them to say specific words which will elicit speech sounds in different word positions, to enable the Speech Pathologist to determine which sounds are mispronounced. Older children or adults may also be assessed while reading aloud and chatting in natural conversation. An Orofacial Examination is also done to look at the anatomy and function of the muscles, of the face, mouth and throat, which may impact pronunciation. The Speech Pathologist may recommend speech treatment if the sound is not appropriate for the person’s age or if it is not a feature of a dialect or accent. 

For more information please follow the link to an excellent website on speech sound disorders:

Well Spoken offers Speech Pathology skills in the management of: Articulation

Well Spoken offers Orofacial Myofunctional expertise: re-programming muscles of the face mouth and throat, correction of oral habits, swallowing, chewing, breathing & speaking, tongue tie….and more.

If you are interested in learning more you could visit the following websites:

  • www.speechpathologyaustralia.org.au
  • Speech Pathology Fact Sheets
  • www.asha.org
  • www.rcslt.org
How do I choose a Speech Pathologist to work with?

Ask them about their training, and their experience in assessing and treating the difficulty that you are presenting with and whether they are certified with Speech Pathology Australia. E.g. you could ask “how many children have you treated and what was the problem that you treated?”. Not all speech pathologists have clinical experience across all areas of difficulties or age groups because the scope of practice of a speech pathologist is broad. Whilst everyone studies a wide range of disorder areas, they may have little or no clinical experience e.g. with voice disorders or myofunctional disorders. Additional study is required along with substantial clinical experience to be competent.

How do I make an appointment?

If you have been referred by your medical or dental specialist click here.

Sharon Moore

Author, speaker, sleep health advocate and speech pathologist

I'm Sharon Moore, author, speaker, sleep health advocate and speech pathologist at Well Spoken Upper Airway & Communication Solutions. I've seen more than 40,000 families over 4 decades of clinical work and I’ve seen first-hand how upper airway issues impact both health and happiness. The ripple effects span across family, school, community and society, and left untreated can last a life-time. I believe that great treatment transforms lives, the earlier the better and that everyone has a right to be happy, healthy and heard. I've worked in medical settings in Australia and London and currently run Well Spoken clinic in Canberra treating patients of all ages referred by medical and dental specialists for disorders of function of the upper airway that impact breathing, eating and communication.

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