What is a Phonological Disorder?

Quick facts about phonological disorders:

  • This disorder is more common in boys.
  • The cause of a phonological disease in children is often unknown.
  • Phonological disorders are often idiopathic – they have no known reason.
  • Most children diagnosed with a phonological disorder will need speech therapy or treatment.

How can I recognize if my child has a phonological disorder?

  • If a child has trouble understanding by age 3, they may show signs of a phonological disease.
  • Children should be able to make most phonetic sounds correctly by age 4 or 5. A few exceptions may be the sounds: l, s, r, v, z, ch, sh, and the.
  • Harder sounds may not be pronounced correctly until age 7 or 8.
  • A child may be able to produce a certain sound correctly but use it in the wrong position in a word or the bad word. For example, a child may use the ‘d’ sound instead of the ‘g’ sound and say ‘doe’ instead of ‘go.’
  • They may make mistakes with sounds in particular words. For example, they can produce the ‘k’ sound in ‘kite’ but will leave it out. (Saying ‘lie’ instead of ‘like.’)

Children with phonological disorders and irregular phonological processes have trouble sounding and writing words when learning the language. As a result, these children typically struggle to understand the sound system and the normative speech patterns in early speech learning. However, most people usually have an innate ability to learn and recognize the sounds in their language. Still, the minority of people with phonological disorders need to adapt their abilities in other ways.

Children with a phonological disorder typically have trouble recognizing regular sound patterns learned in early language learning. For example, they may have issues producing sounds made at the front of the mouth, omitting consonants from words, or pronouncing the same word in varied and irregular ways. Of course, all children make mistakes, but normally they will begin to phase out common errors as they practice and learn their common language. Unfortunately, children with a phonological disorder tend not to improve on these common phonological errors and need extra support throughout the learning process.

Due to the disorder, children may typically have problems falling behind in the learning process and present with delayed developmental abilities, but this may not always be the case. For example, children who struggle with a phonological disorder may need speech therapy to improve their speech process and aid them in keeping up with other children in their age range.

What is the difference between a phonological disorder and an articulation disorder?

Phonological disorders should not be confused with articulation disorders. Both are speech disorders that display speech sound errors. Still, articulation disorders occur at a phonetic level (individual speech sounds of a language). In contrast, a phonological disorder is an error at a cognitive or linguistic level (pattern of sounds in a language).

A child with an articulation disorder knows each sound but has trouble creating them with the correct articulators (lips, tongue, teeth, jaw, and velum). Alternatively, a child with a phonological disorder can pronounce the sounds correctly, but they are used in the wrong places within words, or often sounds are omitted altogether. These disorders can and should be differentiated, but a child can have both diseases simultaneously.

Some examples of a child showing articulation disorder:

  • They may have problems making particular speech sounds properly. (They may display a lisp, which sounds like ‘th’.)
  • They may be unable to produce certain sounds and replace them with different sounds. (They may struggle to make the sound and say ‘wabbit’ instead of ‘rabbit’).

What is an example of a phonological disorder?

A child with a phonological disorder may struggle to make the g, k, or r sound. Instead, they might use a different sound. For example, they might say “wed” instead of “red,” or “cup” might sound like “tup.” They may also tend to drop a consonant in a word. For example, they might say “or” instead of “dog.”

There are two types of phonological disorders:

Phonological disorders are not always conventional, and some children may show more developmental issues than others.

Consistent phonological disorder

The child presents with a characteristic phonological disorder, and errors are unusual among other children in their age range.

Inconsistent phonological disorder

The child presents with a characteristic phonological disorder, and errors are unusual among other children in their age range. Additionally, they show a range of developmental phonological errors for single words. Single words have high variability, and a child may use many different pronunciations for a single word without the ability to recognize the difference, creating many phonological errors.

Many phonological speech processes are learned through a developmental process in the early years of teaching. For example, children in the UK know a comprehensive phonics program where they earn to differentiate sounds and predict new word blends. But many parts of the English language contain irregular words known as ‘sight words’ or ‘high-frequency words.’ These particular words are uncommon and do not adhere to the standard phonics rules. Therefore children have to learn them by sight. This can be even more difficult for a child with a phonological disorder.

What causes a phonological disorder?

It is mostly unknown what causes a phonological disorder, though it is known to be more common in boys. A family history of speech and language disorders, hearing loss, developmental delays, genetic diseases, and neurological disorders are all common risk factors for phonological process disorders, and they could develop in any child.

What is a phonological error?

A phonological error is an error made by children concerning the pronunciation and articulation of certain words or sounds. Most children make errors during early learning, as it is all part of learning, recognizing, and repeating. However, if children still present the same mistakes after six months, the child may be struggling with a phonological disorder.

Phonological errors include:

  • Reduplication
  • Consonant harmony
  • Context-sensitive voicing
  • Devoicing
  • Fronting
  • Final consonant deletion
  • Cluster reduction
  • Weak syllable deletion
  • Stopping
  • Gliding

Unusual phonological errors:

Backing- This is when sounds produced at the front of the mouth, such as /t/ and /d/, are replaced by sounds made towards the back of the mouth, such as /c/ and /g/.

For example,

Dog =gog

Top =cop

Initial consonant deletion- This is when the initial consonant in a word is not produced and is omitted altogether.

For example,

Dog = ogg

Cat = at

Ball = all

Glottal replacement- is when a consonant sound is replaced by a stop sound produced in the glottal.

For example,

Puppy = pu-ee

Kitty = ki-ee

Mummy = mu-ee

Glottal insertion- is when a stop sound made at the glottal is put into the child’s word production.

For example,

Puppy = pu-py

Kitty = ki-ty

Mummy = mu-my

Metathesis- is when the order of the consonants in a word is altered or rearranged.

For example,

Animal = aminal

Elephant = efelant

Lemon = lenom

Affrication of plosives- is when a plosive sound is produced instead of an affricate.

For example,

Toy = choy

Dog = jog

What is the difference between plosive and affricate?

A plosive (phonetics) is a sound produced from opening a previously closed oral passage; for example, when pronouncing the sound /p/ in “pug”/

An affricate(phonetics) is a sound produced using a combination of plosive and fricative sounds.

The life of a child with a phonological disorder can be impacted in many ways.

A child with a phonological disorder creates speech patterns that are often difficult to understand, making them more easily frustrated. As a result, children with phonological disorders will typically struggle with literacy and reading skills. Understanding the nature of the disease and finding the right modes of help can aid a child with a phonological disorder to improve their speech patterns faster and enable them to learn functionally according to their specific strengths and skills.

Examples of how phonological disorders can affect a child:

  • Unintelligible speech.
  • High chances of being misunderstood or misunderstanding given information.
  • Difficulties with social aspects of life that require speech.
  • Difficulties with literacy and reading skills.
  • Increased frustration.
  • Confidence levels are reduced.
  • Longer response times.
  • Long-term impact on social, academic, and vocational health and wellbeing.

How can I help my child with a phonological disorder?

Recognizing that a child is struggling with a phonological disorder is the first step to helping them, as is patience and understanding of your child’s abilities. Finding out more information about phonological disorders, speaking to a speech and language therapist, and implementing a curated speech and language therapy program is the best way to help children overcome them.

When to see a doctor

Suppose you have concerns about your child’s speech and think they may have a phonological disorder. In that case, you can ask your GP service or pediatrician to refer you to a speech pathologist for assessment.


A qualified speech pathologist will be able to assess your child and understand if there are any concerns with their speech that may need further treatment. They will be able to identify the cause of the problem and plan treatment with you and your child. Treatment may include exercises for your child to train their speech and correct errors. They will also be able to inform you if you need regular appointments with a speech therapist.

Many children with articulation or phonological disorders see major improvements after working with a qualified speech therapist.

How does speech and language therapy work for phonological disorders?

Speech and language therapists can provide treatment through a therapy program unique to a child’s disorder, helping them increase their intelligibility to others and aid in their communicative process. Speech therapy treatment often depends upon the repetitive practice of sounds and assisting the children in differentiating between differing language patterns that sound similar.

For example,

Chin does not have the same sound as shin.

Bat is not the same as a bath.

Speech therapists often use visual examples like flashcards to help children differentiate between pictures and word sounds.

Speech therapists can also show children where to put their tongues and how to position their mouths when pronouncing certain words, and this is a practice you can also do at home to provide extra support. When understanding that they have emotional and physical support, children can gain confidence in their speech and practice each process until they reach mastery. As their speech therapy develops, children will also improve their writing and reading comprehension and gain a firmer grasp of the language.

As each child is unique, individualized service and speech therapy can be organized to cover a range of priorities:

  • Speech therapy
  • Individual therapy.
  • Group therapy.
  • Support, strategies including advice and training for parents, carers, teachers, and other professionals.
  • Augmentative and alternative communication
  • Cued therapy.

If you think your child may have a phonological disorder and need extra help, get in touch with a speech and language therapist in your local area.

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