14 Jul 2022

Common childhood sound errors and how to correct

From Nine To Noon, 11:35 am on 14 July 2022

Sound errors among children generally are corrected naturally over time, says speech and language therapist Christian Wright.

That’s why he usually doesn’t like to intervene until a child is about seven years old or it becomes obvious this is not a delay but rather a disorder.

“A delay means it’s a bit behind where it should be but it’s likely to catch-up,” Wright explains. “Whereas a disorder is [when] it gets completely stuck and it’s not going to move on.”

girls whispering

Photo: Erin Li/Befunky.com

People going to speech therapy will commonly be asked about the ‘th’ sound, Wright tells Kathryn Ryan.

“Essentially what’s happening is we have two types of ‘th’, you have a whispery ‘th’ and a buzzy ‘th’, so the jargon is voiceless and voiced.

“So, the whispery ‘th’ usually gets made as an ‘f’ if it’s going to have an error, less commonly an ‘s’ or a ‘t’.

“And then the buzzy ‘th’ that gets changed to a ‘v’ or a ‘d’, less commonly a ‘z’.”

The evolving nature of language and the sound system means this has become more predominant over time, with the New Zealand encyclopaedia recognising it as one of the fastest growing sound changes in the country’s English in the early 2000s, he says.

“There are probably some communities within New Zealand where that sound change has become already quite entrenched and so it just perpetuates itself.”

Visual support

Some children who make sound errors cannot distinguish the difference through hearing and others do hear it but cannot co-ordinate themselves to produce it, he says.

So the first step is providing visual support to coach them on the placement of their tongue, he says.

“We want it to be just a subtle tongue between the teeth and the best measure of that is how you make it yourself. So how much your tongue protrudes, look in the mirror, have the child imitate it, that’s the placement cue.”

Raising awareness

Wright says he will often take a picture of the child making the mouth shapes of ‘th’ and f’ to raise awareness they are different sounds and look different.

“I’ll then tie the actual written letters, so I’ll put ‘th’ under the tongue between the teeth shape and an ‘f’ under the teeth over the lip shape. So I’m beginning to show them now that we also write this differently.”

You can also guide them with contrast of rhyming pairs or search online for ‘th versus v minimal pairs’, he says.

“So for example fin, thin … I ask the child to watch my mouth, because they aren’t very good at hearing it, they watch my mouth, then point to whether it’s the photo with ‘th’ under it or the ‘f’ photo.

“I’ll do that for a bit to raise their awareness and develop their ability to discriminate between the two.”

Production practice

As children have a go at saying the words themselves and sorting the pictures, it may prove challenging which is why it’s important to start very simply, he says.

Start with the buzzy ‘th’, for example, and add vowels to produces sounds like the, thi, tho, and thau.

“The reason the buzzy one is easier is you’re going from a ‘th’ into a buzzy vowel, so there’s no need to turn your voice on and off, but when you go from a voiceless ‘th’ into a vowel, there is an off-on, and that really throws children off.

“What they’ll want to do is they’ll always want to revert to the error sound so I’ll put the tongue between the teeth, we’ll stretch it, and then I’ll slowly open my mouth ahhh and they can usually copy that if you go slow enough and they’re focusing on it.”

Keep rehearsing until it becomes easier for the child and then slowly build up the complexity by adding a word and later very short sentences, he says.

“What we try to do is distil it down to that single word level so they have less to cope with and they can bring their attention to the sound change they’re trying to do.

“Once they’re coping okay with single words, put a word around it so ‘my thin line’, ‘the shark fin’, like you’re just keeping it as a short sentence.”