Phonological Disorder

What is phonological disorder?

Phonological disorder is fairly common and hinders a child from being able to articulate sounds or words appropriately.

A phonological disorder occurs most frequently in younger children who have not developed the ability to master their speech. Children with these developmental issues require placement in a special therapy class in order to teach them skills and techniques which allow them to more accurately execute proper speech.

A phonological disorder may stay with an individual throughout their lifetime if the result is a physiological abnormality or some type of genetic disorder or trauma the child develops early in their life. These problems can see some degree of improvement through treatment and speech therapy but may linger for the person’s lifetime along with their root disability. The majority of phonological disorders tend to disappear on their own over the course of the child’s development with assistance from a speech therapist and the child’s family.


Most adults have encountered children who have trouble sounding out certain sounds during their development, which may be normal up to a certain age and expected ability. A phonological disorder occurs when the child has not yet met speech development markers and has trouble sounding out or saying words mastered at their given age ability. When these disorders occur, they become addressed in speech therapy either in school or by a private practicing speech therapist.

The outlook for children with phonological disorders is generally positive, but in more severe cases, the child may have a permanent issue; however, they mostly improve with regular therapy sessions. This condition is fairly common and affects approximately 3% of children aged 2-3 years and approximately 2% of children aged 6-7 years. The majority of children experiencing speech development issues will correct themselves within a few years or can overcome the issues through intensive speech therapy which is designed to assist the child with the formation of sounds and words with special exercises that develop their skills.

Professionals advise that parents should worry when the child isn’t understood half the time by 3, cannot speak clearly most of the time by age 5, or is still having trouble with clear and precise wording and word sounds by the age of 6 or 7.

Symptoms of phonological disorder

There are many symptoms associated with a phonological disorder. There are many children who have trouble with words and sounds early on in their developmental phase, but by the age of 3, the child should be understood for at least half of the time when they speak. If their speech is largely unintelligible by that age, it can signal the development of a phonological disorder. By the time the child reaches the age of 5 years, most of what they say should be understood by everyone.

If there is a problem understanding their speech regularly, it should be treated as a suspicious situation and requires evaluation by a professional working in the field of speech development. These tests can even be administered in a school. Most public schools have an assigned speech development specialist who can not only diagnose but treat a phonological disorder on the campus.

There is some exception when it comes to specific sounds being executed correctly during the period of ages 4-5. Some of the common sounds children have trouble with include th, l, s, r, v, z, sh, and ch. If the child is having trouble with these sounds, it may not mean the child has a phonological disorder, but they may need help developing those sounds properly. Proactive parents and teachers should focus on these sounds and the correct method to execute them in regular speech. It is important to note that proper speech development may not occur in children completely until they reach the ages of 7 or 8.

In order to determine if speech issues are normal or may warrant further testing and treatment, it is necessary for the child to see a speech therapist or some other type of childhood speech professional for more information and observation. Children who are diagnosed with the disorder may have trouble saying words with an “r” sound in them such as ‘friend’. Other words containing a “w” or a “p” sound may pose a particular problem for these children. In most instances, the child will leave out the sound they are having trouble with, or pronounce it inappropriately, which may change the actual word or alter its sound significantly such that others may not understand the word the child is pronouncing.

Causes of phonological disorder

There are a few theories as to the causes of phonological disorders, including the income level of the family the child comes from. It is noted that there is a higher likelihood of the child having a phonological disorder if they come from a low-income family, or even a large family. Genetics may also play a part in the development of a phonological disorder. If there are members of the immediate family who are afflicted with a phonological disorder, there seems to be a higher occurrence rate for the disorder to appear in children.

Researchers have also noted that a phonological disorder is more common in boys than in girls. Some causes of phonological disorders may stem from physical development issues and deformities in the child. A cleft palate may sometimes create a disruption in speech development and the ability to properly sound out words. The deformity affects the flow of words because the tongue falls in a different manner than it would in someone without the cleft palate. Other physiological deformities related to the bones of the jaw and the musculature in the jaw are also common causes for a phonological disorder to appear in a child.

Another cause for the development of a speech disorder can stem from some sort of brain trauma or development issue. It can also affect the nerves and their ability to communicate information from the mouth to the brain. In turn, the child is unable to process the functions which are necessary to form words and sounds appropriately. If the issue is within the brain, this particular set of problems is more likely to affect the person permanently throughout their lifetime. Not all brain injuries produce permanent results, but if the problem is severe enough for the child to have trouble healing or recovering, it is a distinct possibility. An example of this type of condition is cerebral palsy.

Children with this condition experience deterioration through their development stages and may have a lifetime of speech development problems due to the severity of the condition. Impaired hearing development may also cause the phonological disorder to appear during childhood. If the child is unable to hear how they pronounce words and sounds, they may adapt their sounds and language, which causes them to produce the wrong sounds.

Treatment of phonological disorder

If the condition is mild enough, the condition may disappear on its own. The normal age for the condition to clear up on its own is 6 years of age. If the speech specialist sees that the issues are continuing, they may recommend the child to take part in some speech therapy classes with a trained professional to correct the issue. If the condition is severe from the onset, the child may undergo speech therapy for an extended amount of time. The speech therapy focuses on how the child should position their tongue and mouth when making the sounds of words. With some work, over a course of time, there may be a complete reversal of the phonological disorder or at least a significant improvement.

The prognosis for most mild cases is positive and may require some parental and teacher assistance in conjunction with the traditional treatment recommended for children who have a speech disorder. For more severe cases which may be caused by brain trauma or a genetic disorder, the prognosis can be somewhat negative, but speech therapy is always recommended because it can create some improvement, which, in turn, can cause an improvement in the quality of life of the person. A speech language pathologist is a specialist who has special training, which helps to diagnose a phonological disorder, and can reveal the severity and need for therapy for the child in question.

Prevention of phonological disorder

There is no particular way to prevent a phonological disorder; however, there are steps parents and guardians can take to help their children address issues which begin to appear to hinder the child’s vocabulary development.

One of the most important ways a parent can help their child with developing proper speech patterns is to take a proactive role in teaching them the proper way to produce sounds in speech. Letting children see how the mouth forms the proper sounds and practicing with them is a great way to help speed up proper development and prevent a delay in learning age-appropriate speech patterns.

Proactive parenting and involvement with early childhood development give kids a better platform on which to build their speech. There are, however, differences in dialect throughout the country, and it is worth noting that a child may pronounce their words and sounds differently from city to city around the country. This does not point to a phonological disorder and shouldn’t carry weight when the child is being evaluated for their speech patterns and during treatment for speech-related issues.

If the parent is able, it’s worthwhile enlisting the help of individuals who receive special training to assist kids with their speech development as soon as a problem appears. This can help prevent an actual phonological disorder from developing. Parents should also be particularly attentive to the way in which they produce sounds, or expose their kids to speech.

If the parent has speech issues, the child may pick up on these problems and reflect them through their own speech. Always pay attention to a child’s development and address any potential issues immediately to ensure a more effective learning experience and less chance for a phonological disorder to develop.

Phonological disorders are common in young children who learn proper speech patterns and the appropriate way to sound out words in their vocabulary. Some children experience issues with their word and speech patterns for a variety of reasons. These issues respond effectively with speech therapy, as well as parents and guardians taking an active role in the learning and correction process.

Phonological disorders can, but rarely, affect people later in life. In some cases, the problem may linger for the rest of the person’s life but can improve to a degree with intense speech therapy sessions throughout their childhood and early adult years.

Last Reviewed:
September 16, 2017
Last Updated:
September 16, 2017
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