What are Phonological Processes?


We’ve talked a lot about helping kids with articulation disorders here on Mommy Speech Therapy. I’ve shared my Articulation Screener to help you identify the sounds kids are saying in error as well as an Articulation Goal Tracker to help select the sounds that need to be targeted and keep track of progress. But what if your child has so many sound errors you don’t know where to start, or they are so difficult to understand you don’t know how to help them? If this is the case they may have more than an articulation delay, they may have a phonological disorder characterized by the presence of phonological processes beyond what would be expected.

What are Phonological Processes?

Phonological processes are patterns of sound errors that typically developing children use to simplify speech as they are learning to talk. They do this because they don’t have the ability to coordinate the lips, tongue, teeth, palate and jaw for clear speech. As a result they simplify complex words in predictable ways until they develop the coordination required to articulate clearly. For example, they may reduce consonant clusters to a single consonant like, “pane” for “plane” or delete the weak syllable in a word saying, “nana” for “banana.” There are many different patterns of simplifications or phonological processes.

Below I’ve included a link to download my Phonological Processes Chart which lists common phonological processes and an approximate age at which children should no longer be using them.

What is a phonological disorder?

These processes are considered normal unless they persist beyond the age when most typically developing children have stopped using them. For example if your 4 year old still uses the phonological process of “reduplication” (saying, “wawa” for “water”) that would be considered delayed since most children stop using that process by the time they turn 3.

A phonological delay may also be considered if the processes the child is using are different than what would be expected. For example, if your child leaves all of the beginning sounds off of his/her words it would be considered a delay since “initial consonant deletion” is not common in typical development.

The excessive use of phonological processes can also indicate a phonological disorder because when multiple phonological processes are exhibited together it usually increases the child’s unintelligibility making them really difficult to understand. As a result, if you have a highly unintelligible child they’re likely to have a phonological delay, and their phonological skills should be assessed when considering a treatment plan.

If you’re uncertain as to how intelligible your child should be based on their age, the standard guideline is by 2 years old a child should be 50% intelligible to an unfamiliar listener. By 3 years old they should be 75% intelligible to an unfamiliar listener and by 4-5 years old they should be close to 100% intelligible to an unfamiliar listener even if a few articulation errors are still present in their speech.

Articulation or Phonological Disorder?

Since phonological disorders and articulation disorders are both speech sound disorders it can sometimes be tricky to know which speech sound disorder is present. Here are a few tips on how to tell the difference.

A speech sound disorder is considered an articulation disorder when:

  1. Speech sound errors persist beyond what is developmentally appropriate. Refer to the Speech Sound Development Chart for details.
  2. A child is mild to moderately unintelligible

Children with an articulation disorder typically respond well to a traditional articulation therapy approach where one sound is targeted at a time. For a guide on traditional articulation therapy refer to “The Process of Articulation Therapy.”

As described above, a speech sound disorder is considered a phonological disorder when:

  1. Phonological processes persist beyond the typical age of development. You can refer to the Phonological Processes Chart for details.
  2. Phonological processes are used that are not seen in typical development
  3. A child is highly unintelligible due to the excessive use of phonological processes

Treatment for Phonological Disorders:

Remediation for kids with phonological disorders usually involves targeting the phonological processes in error as determined by the speech language pathologist. Targeting the phonological processes, as opposed to targeting each error sound by sound as you would in a traditional articulation approach, usually improves speech intelligibility at a faster rate for kids with phonological disorders. If you suspect your child may have a phonological disorder or you are concerned about your child’s speech intelligibility you should contact a speech language pathologist for an evaluation.

As always, I wish your kids the very best in becoming successful communicators and with your help and support I know they can!



Heidi - Mommy Speech Therapy Heidi Hanks, M.S.CCC-SLP has been a practicing Speech-Language Pathologist since 2000. She graduated from Utah State University where she completed both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. She began her career in early intervention and eventually started her own private practice where she has worked primarily with pre-K through school age kids. She is the founder of Little Bee Speech, and is currently developing apps for speech and language. Heidi lives in Utah with her husband and 4 children.


17 Responses to “What are Phonological Processes?”

  1. Michelle says:

    Nice! Good work – as always! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Lindsay says:

    Great info. and beautiful chart, wonderful as always! THANK YOU!
    Lindsay

  3. nicole says:

    Heidi–this is truly a work of art!

  4. Sharon says:

    Any chance you can add at the bottom when a speech sound disorder is apraxia of speech? Great job!

  5. Heidi says:

    Hi Sharon,

    Maybe April’s post, “What is Apraxia” will help you.

  6. Heather Woods says:

    Thanks very much for the information. The chart was especially helpful as I have a 3 year old who is currently booked for a Furlow Palate repair surgery. This website as well as the articulation station app are essential to aid in his progress.

  7. Heidi says:

    I’m happy to hear they are helping! Good luck with the surgery!

  8. Harmony says:

    Very nice! I am a graduate student and this was very helpful!

  9. Dawn says:

    I’m pretty sure my 3 year old has at least 3 phonological disorders (both final and initial consonant deletion and weak syllable deletion). He has recently been accepted into the state funded speech therapy program, but they operate on the school year calendar, so he won’t begin receiving services until September. I was hoping you might have some suggestions on things I can work on with him until then? You mention in this article that treating these disorders can be a bit different by targeting the phonological processes rather than individual errors, but I’m not entirely sure what that means. I’m guessing it means not working specifically on individual letter sounds? Anyway, any advice or exercises you can recommend would be greatly appreciated.

  10. Nauman says:

    Heidi
    i am curiois as my 3.5 yr daughter started speech problems all of a sudden unusual of her as she had been very clear in speech when she started communicating i m very much worried. She is supposed to join pre school early next month moreover whatever poems or phrases she remembered in past when she recalls them she doesnt skip or prolong any word She is kind of reserved person in front of strangers should i wait until school starts do you think she will overcome this thing OR should we consult her to a therapist immediately Please do reply Thanks

  11. Hi Heidi,

    Could you please tell me the difference between phonemic awareness and phonological processes?

    Thanks,

    Najia

  12. Gloria says:

    Hi Heidi, your website is so very helpful! I have a daughter who just turned 4 in May who has been in speech therapy for about 2 years. She has some phonological delays, but is doing great! I was wondering if your articulation worksheets would be the best bet on helping her more at home? Although she sees a speech therapist through our school district, I am not confident that they are addressing the phonology more than articulation. I just want to prepare her as much as possible for kindergarten! Thanks in advance!

  13. April says:

    Hi,
    Great job on getting your son into speech therapy. That is a great first step. From what you are describing, it sounds to me like your son is only producing vowel sounds and leaving the rest of the sounds off of the word. So “baby” would be “a-ee” If this is correct you will want to start with simple and functional consonant vowel words like “Hi, bye, my, no.” This is where phonological process therapy differs from typical articulation therapy because you are not working on a certain sound but rather a group of words that are similar, in this case they are all consonant vowel words and you are working on targeting the initial consonant. Once he is able to do that you will want to target the final consonants. You can do this by choosing simple vowel consonant words or by adding final sounds to the previous words so “Hi” could turn into “Hide” or “Bye” can turn into “Bite.” Hopefully that makes sense and gives you something to start with until your speech therapy program begins. Best of luck and let me know how it goes!

  14. April says:

    Hi Nauman,
    Sorry for the delay in response. Around the age 3-4, children should be saying the sounds: m, n, p, b, t, d, k, g, f, v, h, w, and the y sound correctly in their speech. They should also be 75-100% intelligible in their speech meaning that people can understand about 75-100% of what they’re saying when they’re talking. Children at this age will still make sound errors in their speech with other speech sounds that are still developing like s, z, r, l, etc. because those errors are still age appropriate. If you feel that your daughter is difficult to understand when she’s talking or if she is having trouble saying speech sounds that she should be saying, don’t delay! Contact a speech therapist and they will be able to evaluate your child as to whether or not their is an articulation or phonological disorder present. Best of luck!

  15. April says:

    Hi Najia,
    Sorry for the delay in response. That’s a good question, and it’s one that a lot of people have. A lot of people will confuse phonological processes with phonological awareness. Phonological processes are error patterns in speech that young children use to simplify adult speech. In contrast, phonological awareness is a term that is used to encompass a number of skills that children develop as they become readers, one of which is phonemic awareness where a child has the ability to recognize that words are made up of a variety of sound units, or phonemes. In literature dedicated to how children learn to read, phonological awareness and phonemic awareness can be used interchangeably, which can make the terms confusing. However, phonological processes are different because they deal with speech development and not necessarily reading development. Hope that clears things up for you.

  16. April says:

    Hi Gloria,
    Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the delay in response. So your child has some phonological processes that are being exhibited in her speech, but she also has some misarticulations for some speech sounds? I would suggest that your daughter continue to work on eliminating the phonological processes she’s exhibiting. This will continue to help improve her speech intelligibility. As far as the misarticulations, you can work on them, just make sure that you are targeting ones that are developmentally age appropriate for her. Consult with her current speech therapist. She will probably welcome the fact that you are so dedicated to improving your daughter’s speech and that you’re willing to follow up and work with her at home. Best of luck!

  17. Karen says:

    Thank you so much! LOVE the chart