Phonological Disorders: Are You a “Siwwy Wabbit”?

Riley bounced into our office one day with her concerned parents. We were all smitten with this adorable preschooler with big blue eyes, long brown curls and great social skills. After introductions in the waiting room, Riley took Tessa’s hand and went back to the therapy room with ease.

She sat down with Tessa and played with the farm. Before long, Tessa was able to engage Riley in conversation. She wanted “da titty tat and da tows in da bawn. Da doats and wittle wams  wuh seeping out in da yawd, and da dod was bawting at dem.“

Did you get that? Actually we did! Because Riley was using patterns, we translated Riley’s speech to the following: “The kitty cat and the cows were in the barn. The goats and little lambs were sleeping out in the yard, and the dog was barking at them”.

Since we knew the context of the conversation, we understood Riley about 70% of the time; but her parents and peers were baffled! There were times when they couldn’t understand a single word. Like many children with phonological disorders, Riley is a very bright little girl. She has a lot to say.  She wants to be heard while sharing at circle time and playing with her peers. She was starting to get frustrated! And her parents were getting worried!

What is a Phonological Disorder?

Phonemes are the sounds that make up our words. So a phonological disorder pertains to a child’s production of sounds. Unlike other speech production problems, phonological disorders are patterned. One of the most common patterns is producing ‘t’ for ‘k’ and ‘d’ for ‘g’, so “car” sounds like “tar” and “good” sounds like “dood”.

Another common pattern is changing the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds to ‘w’, making “ring” sound like “wing” and “listen” sound like “wisten”.

The third pattern we often see is cluster reduction, where children reduce consonant clusters that have 2 or 3 sounds; kids typically delete the ‘r’ from ‘br’ and the ‘l’ from ‘bl’clusters, changing “bread” to “bed” and “black” to “back”.  In addition, they often delete one consonant from ‘s’ clusters, so “school” is “cool” or “star” is ‘sar’.

Tessa and Riley got to work. Riley was able to make a ‘k’ when Tessa tapped her finger on Riley’s neck to show her that ‘k’ is made with the back of the tongue. Riley learned to say “cow”, “king” and “key” with three perfect ‘k’ sounds.  Tessa and Riley read books and sang songs that were doused with ‘k’ sounds like “Crazy Camel” and “Cat in the Hat”.

Riley was also reducing consonant clusters, so they worked on ‘sw’, ‘st’ and ‘sp’ as they played with the toy swing set, built a railroad track with stop signs and had a picnic with spoons.

Having those two very important sound patterns, the ‘k/g’  and ‘s’ cluster groups, Riley’s speech was soon 90% clear. Her father exclaimed, “When Riley talks to adults, I barely have to interpret anything anymore!”

How does Speech Affect Reading?

Not only is Riley’s speech clearer, she is also in a better place for emergent literacy. 

Phonological disorders are problems with sounds. And sounds are parts of words… and sounds are linked to letters… and learning the sounds and related letters is one of the first skills children learn in kindergarten—it’s called “phonics”.

Kids with phonological disorders are telling us that their sound systems are out of whack. So these kids are very often at risk for dyslexia. Without intervention, these kids are almost certain to have problems with emergent reading.

But the good news is that phonological disorders are so treatable! And treating them early, before kindergarten, is the best way to prepare children for school. Like Riley, bright kids who receive early speech therapy have an advantage as they prepare to read.

If you know a child like Riley who is having difficulty pronouncing sounds, call our office at 858.509.1131 for more information.  It is never too early or too late to begin!


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