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Speech in the Schools

Hearing Two Phonemes

Published April 5, 2016 10:37 AM by Teresa Roberts

A child who is substituting /w/ for /r/ makes progress producing /r/. He is now using /r/ in initial position in words. Surprisingly, he is also now substituting /r/ for /w/. He is producing “right” correctly, but now he is no longer saying “white”.

My colleague shared this story with me and explained how she needed to provide specific directions to the child, e.g., “It’s OK for you to still say /w/. ‘Wing’ starts with the /w/ sound. You can still pucker your lips for the /w/.”

What happened? We could simply assume that the child overgeneralized production of /r/. Perhaps it is much more complicated. Substitution of the /w/ phoneme for the /r/ phoneme may have altered his phonemic inventory. One sound, /w/, represented two distinct phonemes /w/ and /r/. Untreated speech sound errors may have the ability to affect a child’s phonological understanding.

We each have a phonemic inventory, which is the total number of phonemes that we use contrastively. This means that we recognize that when one phoneme changes, the meaning of the word changes. “Rich” is not the same as “which”. One phoneme change in the minimal pair means that we have said two different words. For a child who is using one sound for two phonemes, this contrast may be lost.

A teacher shared that one of the students was writing “thun” for “sun”. She was concerned that articulation had affected spelling. Speech sound production had likely affected more than spelling, it may have altered the child’s phonological development.


In articulation therapy, we often begin with ear training to help the child differentiate between target sounds and substitutions or distortions. Children often have difficulty recognizing when they have produced the target sound correctly and the closeness of their approximations.

Parents and caregivers may also report that they are unable to hear the difference between their child’s errors, approximations, and correct productions, e.g., “It’s just how he talks. I don't hear it anymore. ”How many years of substituted productions would it take for a child to become unable to hear the difference between phonemes? How many years of substituted productions would it take for a parent/caregiver to become unable to hear the difference in their child’s speech?

We listen for meaning. As typical communicators, the message is more important than how the speech sounds were produced. We generally focus on the content of what was said, instead of how it was said. Children with articulation disorders and their families are likely listening for meaning to the extent that they may lose the ability to hear production.

Extended ear training exercises and contrastive pairs may be essential for many more children with articulation errors than we realize. We could question if more years of inaccurate production leads to increased risk of phonological involvement. We can advocate for children by sharing the benefits of initiating articulation therapy with young children to prevent possible phonological disorders, which could, in turn, affect literacy development.

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About this Blog

    Speech in the Schools
    Occupation: School-based speech-language pathologists
    Setting: Traditional and specialized K-12 classrooms
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