Speak with a Specialist Today! 888-855-1309

Toddler smiling in nature, a moment captured for studying articulation vs phonological disorder.

Articulation vs Phonological Disorder: What’s the Difference?

If you’re navigating the world of speech therapy for your child, you might encounter terms like ‘articulation vs phonological disorder.’ But what do these really mean?

Phonological and articulation disorders are speech sound disorders that affect the production of sounds in speech, often resulting in difficulties with pronunciation, rhythm, and speech clarity.

These disorders can manifest in various forms like substituting one sound for another, omitting certain sounds, or distorting sounds, significantly impacting communication and language development.

With 8 to 9% of young children in the US struggling with a speech sound disorder, it’s crucial for parents to recognize the signs early on and seek appropriate support to tailor their child’s treatment approach effectively.

Understanding whether your child is having trouble with the phonology or articulation of sounds can help you find the right kind of support for their communication and language development.

So in this article, we will share an in-depth comparison of the two.

What Is a Phonological Disorder?

Phonology has to do with the organization of sounds in languages, including their distribution, patterns, and rules of their pronunciation. It focuses on how sounds function and interact with each other.

So a phonological disorder is a speech sound disorder that affects the way a child organizes and uses sounds in speech.

Phonological disorders can manifest in various ways, from swapping sounds to completely skipping over them. Here are some common ways they manifest:

  • Backing: When the back of the mouth is used to produce sounds that should be produced in the front, for example; “gig” for “dig.”
  • Fronting: The opposite of backing. When the front of the mouth is used to produce sounds that should be produced in the back, for example: “pat” for “cat.”
  • Gliding: When “R” sounds like a “W”, and “L” sounds like a “W” or “Y,” for example; “wabbit” for “rabbit.”
  • Assimilation: Substituting one letter for another sound in the same word, for example; “pup” for “cup.”
  • Weak Syllable Deletion: Leaving off the weaker syllable even though they can pronounce it, for example; “mato” for “tomato.”
Child and mother at home, engaging in speech therapy exercises.

What Is an Articulation Disorder?

Articulation is essentially how we use our mouth muscles — like our lips, tongue, teeth, and jaw — to make sounds.

So with articulation disorders, the challenge lies in physically producing sounds rather than organizing them like in phonological disorders.

As a child’s mouth develops, it’s common for them to have trouble getting their tongue, lips, or jaw to cooperate when saying certain sounds.

It’s considered to be a speech sound disorder when they are unable to produce the sounds that are expected of them at any given age.

And while a child with an articulation disorder might know exactly what they want to say, they may struggle to pronounce certain sounds correctly.

This can lead to speech that sounds unclear or difficult to understand.

Some common ways an articulation disorder manifests itself are:

  • Substitution: Switching the “r” for a “w” sound and saying “wabbit” instead of “rabbit.”
  • Omission: Leaving out the “k” sound in “cat,” so it sounds like “at.”
  • Distortion: Producing the “sh” sound with a slight whistle, like saying “shhh” instead of “ship.”
  • Addition: Adding an extra syllable to the word “banana,” so it sounds like “bananana.”
Toddler with dad at home, representing a child with articulation disorder.

What Causes Speech Sound Disorders?

A lot of times it’s unknown what exactly causes a speech sound disorder. It just simply happens.

Other times, it can be the result of:

  • Motor or neurological disorders: like dysarthria or apraxia.
  • Structural abnormalities of the mouth: like a cleft palate.
  • Sensory or perceptual disorders: like hearing loss.

There are also certain factors that can increase the likelihood of your child having or developing a speech sound disorder, like:

  • Gender: Boys are more likely to have a speech sound disorder than girls.
  • Pre- and perinatal problems: Maternal stress and infections can influence speech delays.
  • Family history: Speech disorders seem to be hereditary by nature.

Speech Therapy for Speech Sound Disorders

Speech and language pathologists have several different methods for treating speech sound disorders.

They’ll customize the treatment based on what your child needs.

Articulation therapy focuses on improving how your child forms specific sounds with their mouth whereas phonological therapy aims to fix patterns and language rules your child might struggle with.

Usually, therapists use a mix of techniques and approaches to help your child.

When to Get Help From a Professional

It’s good to keep in mind that it’s pretty common for kids to mess up some sounds while they’re learning to talk. Actually, some sounds don’t even come in until later on.

It’s not really considered a speech issue until a child keeps making those mistakes even when they’re older than usual.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) has outlined what is considered to be those normal age ranges:

  • 1–2 years:
    • Struggling to correctly pronounce sounds such as p, b, m, h, and w in words most of the time.
  • 2–3 years:
    • Finding it difficult to properly articulate sounds like k, g, f, t, d, and n in words or difficulty in being understood, even by those who know the child well.
Full-body image of a toddler at home, illustrating when to seek help for speech disorders.

So if you notice your child is behind with any of these, don’t hesitate to contact a qualified speech therapist for help.

They can do a quick evaluation to determine if your child is showing signs of an articulation or phonological disorder (or maybe both) and they’ll help you come up with a treatment plan moving forward.

Articulation vs Phonological Disorder: A Recap

So while there may be some overlapping signs of and treatment for articulation and phonological disorders, there are also some clear distinctions.

Here’s a quick rundown of the comparison we’ve laid out in this article for you:

Articulation DisorderPhonological Disorder
What is it? Trouble physically producing certain sounds clearly.Difficulty using sounds correctly in speech, such as mixing them up or leaving them out.
FocusProduction of individual sounds.Organization and interaction of sounds within language.
How it manifestsSubstitution, omission, distortion, addition of sounds.Backing, fronting, gliding, assimilation, weak syllable deletion.
Why’s It Happening?Often unknown, but can be related to motor, neurological, structural, or sensory issues.Same as articulation disorders.
How to Fix ItArticulation therapy: focuses on improving specific sounds and mouth movements.Phonological therapy: focuses on understanding language rules and how sounds work together.
Age of ConcernTypically noticeable from an early age, but becomes a problem if the child can’t pronounce p, b, m, h, and w past age 2 or k, g, f, t, d, and n past age 3.May become more apparent as language complexity increases, but becomes a problem if the child cannot be clearly understood by age 3.

Taking the Next Step

Understanding the difference between articulation and phonological disorders can pave the way for more effective treatment tailored to your child’s needs. 

Whether it’s practicing specific sounds or unraveling the mysteries of language patterns, help is at hand.

Virtual Speech Therapy LLC offers expert guidance and personalized treatment plans for children struggling with speech sound disorders.

With virtual therapy sessions conducted from the comfort of your home, we ensure convenience without compromising quality. We’ll also equip parents with practical strategies for home practice, ensuring continuous support for your child’s journey toward clearer communication.

Reach out today for an evaluation and start paving the way for progress!