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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Sophiea

“I wish someone would have told us earlier.”

Speech sound errors & literacy


“I wish someone would have told us earlier.” — the words I hear time and time again from parents. Since I specialize in a niche area of the speech & language field, I am used to being the first person to share concerns with parents. However, every time I hear these words, I can’t help but think how many students would have had more success in language, literacy, and learning development if more clinicians, doctors, and teachers better understood how speech, language, and literacy overlap and were able to identify red flags earlier on in a child’s life.

While working in one of the country’s largest public school systems, I read and wrote countless Individualized Education Plans (IEPS). On every IEP, the clinician is asked how a student’s speech and/or language deficit has an adverse academic performance. Time and time again I read that a student’s speech sound errors affected their ability to, “communicate intelligibly in the classroom”, “interact with peers”, and “respond to questions in the classroom.” However, it was rare to find an IEP that mentioned how a student’s speech sound errors connected to their spelling.

A mentor once told me to always have my student(s) say a word aloud before they spelled it. This advice is common in the world of literacy; it suggests a valuable strategy I’ve witnessed many teachers and clinicians implement. Similarly, I’ve participated in many continuing education workshops and conversations about the overlap between speech sounds, language disabilities, and learning disabilities. However, despite the conversation surrounding the topic, it seems there is little conversation about how the overlap between speech sounds and spelling presents clinically. This week, a wonderful student of mine (let’s call him Max) exemplified the profound relationship between speech and spelling. His spelling errors highlight why it is so important for teachers, clinicians, and parents to understand how speech sounds and spelling are connected.

Max is a fourth-grade student with significant articulation and phonological errors. Meaning, his errors are two-fold. Articulation errors occur when he does not motorically produce certain sounds in the correct way (think about a stereotypical lisp: someone is still saying the /s/* sound, but they are producing it incorrectly). His errors are phonological when he substitutes specific sounds for others. For example, every time he attempts to say the /sh/ sound, he says /s/ instead.

This week, when Max was spelling the word, “ship” he wrote it as sip. Then, when writing the word “thin” he wrote tin. Not surprisingly, when he said these words aloud before he spelled them, his pronunciation mirrored his subsequent spelling. These two examples are quite clear cut: he has phonological processing difficulties where he substitutes /sh/ with /s/ and /th/ with /t/ or /d/.

When articulation gets involved, the waters murky a bit. Errors resulting from articulation may not be as evident or common at first. I have worked with many students who have mild articulation difficulties that do not affect their spelling. Theoretically, this makes sense. Their production errors are based on inaccurate motor movements, not a processing difficulty. A student who says /s/ with their tongue between their teeth is still attempting to say a /s/ sounds. So, when they say and spell sun or sit or silly they recognize the first letter is s. However, I have also witnessed students whose articulation errors are so pronounced that they lead to erred spelling. Max is one of those students. For instance, he is unable to accurately produce his /r/ sound. Whether it’s in a consonant cluster (e.g., “tree”) , at the beginning of words (e.g., “rabbit”), or in an r-controlled vowel (e.g., her, bird, burn, far, more), articulation errors are persistent. So now, Max, who is in fourth grade, has spent years spelling words containing an /r/ incorrectly. In part, his spelling errors are due to his difficulty correctly producing this sound, which is reflected in how he spells, reads, and pronounces the word. Take for example the word “girl”; Max spells, reads, and says girl as gril. Now, many articulation errors are so pronounced that a child’s attempt at one sound replicates a different sound or is so far from the target sound that it’s not distinguishable. In fact, Max makes some of these errors. Though they aren’t as persistent as his /r/ errors, they are just as impactful. For example, in a previous session, he was saying the word “duck.” He produced the /d/ sound with his tongue pressing against his palate, so it sounded closer to “guck” than “duck.” Can you guess how he wrote the word? Yup, g-u-ck.

All in all, when working with students on speech or literacy, it is critical to recognize how the two overlap. Being educated on the connection has implications for identification, assessment, and intervention.

Teacher/Clinician Takeaways:

  • It is imperative that speech-language pathologists are diligent about looking at the root of a speech sound error. They must be thoughtful about whether or not the error is phonological or motoric in nature.

  • The “wait and see” approach for speech sound errors leads to difficulties beyond pronunciation. Not only does waiting make it more difficult to correct speech sound errors, but it opens the door for articulation and phonological errors to affect literacy.

  • While working with a student with speech sound errors, it is important to understand how their errors affect their spelling and adjust instruction accordingly.

  • Speech, language, and literacy are connected. They can not be treated in a vacuum.

Parent Takeaways:

  • Don’t hesitate to seek treatment for speech sound errors. I can’t emphasize this enough.

  • Get curious about your child’s spelling errors. What kind of mistakes are they making? Does it line up with the sounds they have difficulty saying out loud?

  • Advocate for your child with teachers and clinicians. Ask questions about all parts of their profile (language, speech, learning).

  • Be familiar with speech sound acquisition norms (Age of Customary Consonant Production)

As always, email samantha@seattlelearningdoctor.com with any questions or comments about this post. Or, if you’re interested in connecting with The Learning Doctor, visit www.seattlelearningdoctor.com.

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