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Articulation Disorders and Phonological Disorders: What's the Difference? (A Guide for Parents)

Articulation Disorders and Phonological Disorders: What's the Difference? (A Guide for Parents)

If your child has recently been diagnosed with a speech disorder, your mind may be swirling with all the new terms that are being thrown at you. From articulation disorder and phonological processing to generalization and productions, there's a lot of new vocabulary to understand and navigate.

One of the most common areas of confusion is the terminology around diagnoses themselves — especially the differences between articulation disorder, phonological disorder, and speech sound disorder.


What do each of these terms mean? 

Let's start with a tiny bit of context. Learning to speak — like acquiring any skill — takes some time and practice, and kids often have some difficulty saying certain words correctly when they first learn them. Just like all the other things they are learning to do, it's perfectly common for it to take a little while for them to make some speech sounds (the different sounds that are used in any particular language) correctly.

Some children, however, have persistent errors in their speech, even after they've been trying to say certain words for quite a while. This can happen for many reasons, and can be a sign that they have a speech sound disorder.

Speech sound disorder is an umbrella term: it's the general term for having difficulty producing speech sounds. But these tend to fall into a few more specific patterns, which is where the other diagnostic terminology comes in. 

Speech sound disorders fall into two basic categories. Some children have speech sound disorders due to identifiable physical causes (like hearing impairment of a cleft palate) interfering with speech development; these are called organic speech sound disorders

More often, speech sound disorders are what's called idiopathic, which means they have no known cause. These are called functional speech sound disorders. Functional disorders are then divided into two groups: articulation disorders and phonological processing disorders.

Chart of speech sound disorders


Articulation is the process of making sounds, and so an articulation disorder is when a child has difficulty in successfully making certain sounds. 

Put another way: articulation disorders involve errors in making one or more of the individual sounds that are part of speech. For instance, some kids struggle to pronounce the R sound — which you might notice if they keep saying waisin instead of raisin. (To express this more technically, kids with articulation disorders "have trouble with the motor functions required to make certain speech sounds.") 

Phonology is the study of sound patterns in a language — and so a phonological disorder is when a child makes persistent errors in the patterns of sound they produce. In these cases, the difficulty isn't being physically able to produce any individual sound, but rather correctly producing some sound patterns which are part of speech. (An example of this is a kid who can say ball — they can pronounce the L sound — but who says boo and goo instead of blue and glue. There is a recurring pattern of how sounds are put together in these words, with a cluster of consonants at the beginning and the L coming second, but a child with a phonological disorder may persistently omit the L when it appears as part of this kind of pattern, even though they can say L on its own.)

The simplest way to summarize all this is that articulation disorders involve difficulties in making sounds while phonological disorders involve difficulties in using sounds.

While it can be helpful to understand these terms, it's also important to recognize their limits. Articulation disorders and phonological disorders cannot be fully separated out: some kids have both and often it can be difficult to tease them apart. Treatment often involves similar types of speech therapy exercises, too. 

All of which is to say: it's good to be familiar with the terms, but you don't need to get hung up on them.

Fortunately, articulation and phonological processing disorders can be effectively addressed with speech therapy. With the right support and care, most children with speech sound disorders will see significant improvements in their speech soon after starting an appropriate treatment program.


Curious to learn how SpeakSuite can help your child with their articulation progression? Reach out & share SpeakSuite with your current SLP! 


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