Small children learn to speak by imitating those around them. Sounds that are too complicated for their developing oral-motor skills often cause them to rely on common phonological processes. These processes are like shortcuts. They're ways of mimicking the pronunciation of a sound the child can't produce correctly yet. However, if a child comes to rely on them, that child could develop a variety of speech impairments. And research has shown a possible relationship between speech impairments and stuttering.
All children use these shortcuts at first. However, if your child doesn't eventually learn to form sounds correctly, or develops a stutter, you should consider seeking the assistance of a speech therapist.
What Causes Stuttering?
Stuttering is a speech disorder that disrupts the flow of sentences. Someone with a stutter may repeat a sound or prolong one. They may also exhibit an arbitrary strike in the sounds and syllables of a sentence. It's hard to overcome a stutter, and the stress of speaking correctly may also cause unusual body movements or facial expressions.
Stuttering, especially in children, can happen for many reasons. However, there are several factors which play a contributing role in the development of stuttering. These areas include a child's individual development, genetics, family dynamics, and even neurophysiological issues.
Stuttering is very common. What's more, the symptoms of stuttering are treatable with speech therapy or non-speech oral-motor therapy. Treatment will allow your child to communicate more naturally and without a stutter eventually.
What Are Phonological Processes?
The term “phonological processes” refers to the shortcuts and patterns used by people who are first learning a language. But relying on them can lead to the development of impaired speech.
Don't confuse phonological processes with phonological processing, however, although both may play a role in speech difficulties. Phonological processes are shortcuts people use to approximate difficult speech sounds. Phonological processing refers to the way a person hears and understands specific language sounds. If your child is experiencing speech difficulties, you should consider both the way they're producing sounds and the way they might be understanding them.
The Common Phonological Processes of People Who Stutter
If your child stutters, it’s possible that they developed it through continued and uncorrected speech patterns promoted by their reliance on phonological processes. Here are the most common phonological processes of people who stutter.
Initial consonant deletion
In English, the vowels are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. All the other sounds are consonants. Sometimes if a word begins with a consonant, a child may skip it. This is one of the most common phonological processes.
Final consonant deletion
Young children who haven't fully developed proper speaking patterns may also skip the final sound in a word that ends with a consonant. This can make their speech difficult to understand. For this reason, if your child does this consistently, you should seek the advice of a speech therapist.
The velum is the soft palate, that is, the back of the roof of the mouth. Velar consonants like k and g are produced by placing the tongue against the velum. Some children find these consonants difficult to produce. In some cases, they may move the velar consonant to the front of the mouth, for example, pronouncing "cat" as "tat."
Sometimes, if the final consonant of one word is similar to the first consonant of the next word, a child may merge them. Other times, a consonant may be difficult to pronounce, so the child may substitute a similar sound produced in the same place in the mouth. These are examples of consonant assimilation. Some assimilations are an accepted part of English speech, for example, the final s in "bees" is pronounced z. However, other assimilations, like substituting d for n ("doze" for "nose") changes the meaning of the word and makes the word less understandable. For this reason, a child who relies on this process should work with a speech therapist.
Reduplication means repeating the same syllable. This is a crucial issue, and it's easy to recognize. If your child reduplicates syllables, it's time to consult a speech therapist.
Weak syllable deletion
English speakers emphasize some syllables and de-emphasize others. For example, in the word umbrella (um BRE lla) we emphasize 'bre'. 'Bre' is the strong syllable. The others are weak. Some people may skip one or more of the weak syllables in a word. This generally clears up by age four. If it doesn't, speech therapy can help.
Treatment for Reliance on Phonological Processes
Many treatment methods for inappropriate phonological processes have surfaced over the years. Each focuses on the patient's overall articulation of speech sounds. A speech therapist may choose to approach the problem from a motor skills perspective. He or she may also choose from a variety of techniques that address the production of specific sounds. Below are some terms that you may encounter in your research.
Phases of treatment
There are three distinct phases of treatment: establishment, generalization, and maintenance.
This is the first phase of treatment. In this phase, the speech therapist evaluates your child's problem and decides which areas to target.
This is the second phase of treatment. Generalization involves the general correction of words, syllables, sentences, and conversational speaking to help a child overcome a problem with phonological processes.
Once a problem has been corrected, it's necessary to provide consistent support for the new speech habits. Maintenance is the final phase of therapy, where therapists and families help the child to maintain their new, functional speech patterns.
A speech therapist may use some different techniques to help your child to overcome his or her speech difficulties.
Contextual utilization is a fancy way of saying "using a speech sound in context." That is, the child learns to recognize the target sounds in syllable patterns in proper speech. The child also learns to say the sound precisely and accurately. Consequently, this will help the child to correct certain phonological processes.
Contrast therapy uses contrasting word pairs rather than individual sounds to help an individual overcome their trouble with articulation. It focuses on the differences in the pronunciations of words.
Non-speech oral-motor therapy
Certain speech difficulties happen because an individual has poor control over the motor processes that control speech. This therapeutic approach addresses this problem, by using exercises to help the individual develop strength, awareness, and coordination.
The articulation approach is for children who substitute or mispronounce a single sound. The child practices saying these sounds in isolation, then in nonsense syllables, then in words and conversational tasks.
The phonological approach is for children who have problems with entire classes of sounds. Phonological therapy involves pairs of words that demonstrate the correct pronunciation of the sound paired with the incorrect pronunciation.
Your Responsibility as a Parent
If your child is producing sounds incorrectly or relying on phonological processes, it may be time to consult a speech therapist. Listen carefully to irregularities and try to find a pattern. This will help the speech therapist to determine the exact problem and formulate a plan for treatment. Stuttering, reliance on phonological processes, and other speech problems are common and treatable.
This article is not intended as medical advice. If you are concerned about your child's speech development, contact your pediatrician or speech therapist.