By Marianne Umphlett

The ability to correctly articulate consonant and vowel sounds begins in infancy and continues through early childhood. The greatest increase in true speaking ability occurs during the preschool or toddler years with parents recognizing that their child is suddenly talking about everything and can be understood! However, it’s really vocal play, babbling, crying, and hearing environmental and human sound patterns that lay the foundation for speech and language development.

When are articulation errors considered normal developmental patterns, and when are they considered delayed or abnormal? First, articulation is the complex orchestration of muscle strength, mobility, coordination and motor planning. Articulation is essentially an involuntary movement once the initiation of speech occurs. In any stage of development, there may be a disharmony in developed speech. When this disharmony doesn’t improve naturally or when the differences exceed the norm, a delay or disorder may be suspected.

Most experts agree that children should articulate all consonant sounds correctly by age eight. But how do these sounds develop? What is the order? Lip sounds and beginning tongue tip sounds (p, b, m, w, t, d) are the first consonant sounds to emerge. These should occur as babbling single syllables at four months, and a child should be grouping sounds into multiple syllables around seven months to one year of age.

Between ages one and two, a child should be saying more purposeful, clearer words each month and starting to ask two-word questions. By age two to three, a child has a word for nearly everything and by age five, he or she should be easily understood by an unfamiliar adult with some misarticulated sounds, specifically l, s, r, v, z, j, ch, sh, and th.

A standardized study by the developers of the Goldman-Fristoe Test of Articuation-2 involved a nationwide sample of 2,350 children matching U.S. census data on gender, race, ethnicity, region, and mother’s educational level. The team also conducted a special study of 281 English-speaking and Canadian children to validate the normal developmental progression of articulating consonant sounds. The following chart outlines the ages at which 85% of children produce consonant and consonant cluster sounds correctly:

Age Initial Position Medial Position Final Position
2 Years b, d, h, m, n, p b, m, n m, p
3 Years f, g, k, t, w f, g, k, ng, p, t b, d, g, k, n, t
4 Years kw d f
5 Years ch, dge, l, s, sh, j ch, dge, l, s, sh, z l, ng, ch, dge, s, sh, r, v, z
6 Years r, v, br, dr, fl, fr, gl, gr, kl, kr, pl, st, tr r, v
7 Years z, sl, sp, sw, th – (voiced and voiceless as in thick and that) th – voiced as in “that” th – voiceless as in “thick”
8 Years h – voiceless as in “thick”

Now what about those tricky r’s which can make someone’s dialect even seem different? The “r” sound is the most difficult consonant to remediate since “r” is produced by the back-lateral margins of the tongue and anchored by the back molars, thus limiting tactile and visual feedback. I have found great success in using a mirror, a flashlight, and extreme auditory bombardment to correctly produce the target “r” sound in therapy sessions. A large number of productions (100-400) in a 30-minute therapy session are generally the goal, followed by practice with parents at home to reinforce the desired outcome.

Because an improper “r” is challenging to correct, especially if a pattern is learned and produced incorrectly for many years, I believe it’s essential to work on this sound as early as possible. For example, if a child produces a “w” sound for “r” at age 5 or in kindergarten, remediation will be more successful at this age rather than wait to first grade. Research data indicates that if the “r” sound is not corrected by third grade, if may never be corrected. This is also the age where self-awareness and peer awareness emerges, affecting a child’s self esteem and ease with public speaking among friends.

The longer an incorrect pattern continues, the harder it is to change the muscle memory for the produced sound. I am a proponent of early identification and early intervention in order to remediate articulation errors as quickly as possible. Speech is an automatic coordination of the articulators (tongue, palate, teeth, lips and jaw), breathing and vocalization from the larynx. When you speak you don’t really think about how or why all of these things occur.

If you have concerns about your child articulation development, ask a speech pathologist to conduct a screening or evaluation to determine whether progression appears normal. Often, parents become accustomed to the particular way their child speaks and can miss the opportunity for early intervention. However, if a parent, teacher, caregiver or even a relative notices articulation issues, this usually indicates a problem. Articulation impacts communication, reading, writing, spelling and peer relationships, and early remediation can lead to a lifetime of confidence and success.