Speech production requires that the components of the physical speech mechanism (vocal cords, tongue, lips, teeth, soft and hard palate, and lungs) work together in specific ways to produce the needed sounds. Articulation disorders result from impairments in this coordination.
Some mispronunciations are normal among preschool children (Kostelnik et al., 2004). For example, consonant blends and digraphs may be mispronounced. Spaghetti may be pronounced “busketti,” and then may be pronounced “ven” (Kostelnik et al., 2004) or “den.” The amount, type, and duration of mispronunciations over time determines whether there should be a serious concern for a child’s articulation.
Articulation disorders are indicated when a child’s speech at age 3 cannot be understood by an unfamiliar adult, and additionally, at age 8, when errors in articulation are still evident (Patterson & Wright, 1990). In some instances, articulation problems may simply represent a delay in muscle development or coordination needed for articulating specific sounds. Articulation problems can also result from a child’s chronic ear infections. Because the child could not clearly hear the speech sounds during the time in which the specific sounds were acquired, he may not have learned how to produce the specific sounds correctly.
In other instances, articulation problems may reflect specific physical impairment, such as cleft lip, cleft palate, or tongue-tie, which is known as restrictive lingual frenulum. Each of these physical impairments comes from abnormalities that occurred during prenatal development. Cleft lip is a separation or split in the upper lip. A split that extends to the roof of the mouth is a cleft palate. Although the exact causes of cleft lips and cleft palates are not known, both genetic and prenatal environmental factors may be involved (Moller, Starr, & Johnson, 1990).
Tongue-tie occurs when the fold of membrane (lingual frenulum) at the midline of the tongue’s underside is too short (Tortora, 1992) or is “totally adhered to the floor of the mouth” (Boshart, 1999, p. 31). When the tongue is “tied” or restricted in its movement due to the shortened piece of membrane, articulation is limited. Eating problems may also be evident. The medical term for the congenital condition resulting in tongue-tie is ankyloglossia (Tortora, 1992).
Physical impairments such as cleft lip, cleft palate, and tongue-tie indicate long-term problems if no intervention occurs. In each of these instances, surgery can correct the problem; however, depending on the age of the child and the severity of the original physical impairment, extensive speech therapy may still be needed.
When a teacher notices a child who may have long-term articulation problems, it is important for the teacher to share those observations with a speech–language pathologist so that a more focused assessment can be made. Because of their physical appearance, cleft lip and cleft palate conditions are usually recognized at birth and surgery is performed during the first year. Children with tongue-tie may not be identified until later, when problems with eating or articulation are noticed. Children with long-term articulation problems need a specialized program implemented by both the classroom teacher and the speech–language therapist.
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