Articulation with Elementary Students

I’m excited to share with you today about articulation and ways to help students  in your classroom. My name is Kari Lim, and I am a Speech-Language Pathologist who loves talking about my profession! I hope I can answer any questions you have about articulation and give you ideas of how you can help your students work on their speech goals in your classroom.

Many teachers are used to their students being pulled out of the classroom by a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) to address specific sounds, or articulation, but they may ask themselves “what is the SLP doing?” or “how can I help?”.

SLPs provide speech therapy and one of the areas they target is articulation, which refers to teaching specific speech sounds. The goals and treatment plan look differently for every individual. Here is a simple guide to articulation.

Speech sounds develop by different ages depending on how they are produced by the articulators. Articulators include:

  • Lips
  • Teeth 
  • Tongue
  • Jaw
  • Nose
  • Alveolar ridge- gum ridge behind top teeth
  • Hard and soft palate- roof of mouth
  • Larynx- voice box
  • Pharynx- throat
Speech Diagram

Sounds that are visible and produced with the lips, such as /p/ and /b/, emerge first. This is because it’s easy for children to see how the sound is produced and imitate them. Sounds that are produced in the back of the mouth, such as /k/ and /g/, also emerge early in life. The reason for this is because infants spend a lot of time on their backs and gravity helps them learn to use the back of their tongue as they are engaging in vocal play and blowing raspberries. Sounds that are produced in the middle of the mouth are the last to emerge because they are harder to see, therefore harder to imitate, and require a more fine-tuned articulator placement.

There are several developmental norms for articulation out there. I use the Iowa-Nebraska norms most frequently when determining if speech sound errors are age appropriate or not.

Articulation Chart

To determine the impact of articulation errors, a child’s intelligibility level should be considered. Meaning, how well they are understood by others. Below are the expected intelligibility levels by ages according to Pena-Brooks, Adriana, & Hedge.

  • By 2 years, unfamiliar listeners should understand 50% of utterances at the sentence level
  • By 3 years, unfamiliar listeners should understand 75% of utterances at the sentence level
  • By 4 years, unfamiliar listeners should understand 75-90% of utterances at the sentence level
  • By 5+ years, unfamiliar listeners should understand 90-100% of utterances at the sentence level


What should you do if a student says sounds incorrectly?

Refer the student to the SLP at your school for a complete speech and language evaluation. The SLP will determine if the student’s speech and language skills are age appropriate or need intervention.

What will speech therapy for articulation look like?

The principles of motor learning tell us that new skills should be practiced in an easy context and then gradually made more challenging. The most commonly used technique to address speech sounds is what is called the traditional articulation hierarchy. With this hierarchy, individual sounds are first taught in isolation and then practiced in short utterances, gradually moving to longer utterances, and spontaneous speech. There are 7 levels.

  1. Isolation Level:

First the student is taught to produce the sound on its own. Depending on the sound, this can take a short amount of time, or longer for harder to produce sounds. The SLP will have a bag of tricks to elicit speech sounds using anything from verbal prompts about tongue placement and airflow to tactile cues for reinforcement of tongue and jaw position such as a lollipop or tongue depressor.

  1. Syllable Level:

After the student can produce the sound, it’s time to start pairing the consonant with vowels to form syllables. Syllables are usually a target consonant + vowel (ex. “Sue”) or vowel + target consonant (ex. “Us”).

3.  Word Level:

After syllables, target sounds are then practiced with words. There are three word positions: initial, medial, and final. This means that the target sound can occur at the beginning of a word (initial position as in “Sue”), middle of a word (medial position as in “fossil”), and end of a word (final position as in “us”).

Students may have an easier time producing the target sound in one word position compared to the others. Therefore, the word level is usually first addressed using block trials, meaning only one word position is addressed at a time. Gradually, the trials can become random so that all word positions are addressed at once.

Another thing to consider at the word level is the number of syllables per word. It’s best to start with one syllable words and gradually move to two and three syllable words.

4. Phrase Level:

Generally the isolation, syllable, and word levels are a lot of practice and drill and can sometimes take the longest time to master. Once the student has mastered these levels, it’s time to start working on carryover of the target sound into utterances that gradually increase in length. The first place to start for carryover is at the phrase level, which consists of 1-2 words combined with one word that contains the target sound (2-3 words in total). To keep things simple, use a carrier phrase such as “my” or “I see” and have the student rotate through the target words.

5. Sentence Level:

After phrases comes sentences, which should be about 5 words in length (including one word with the target sound). Sentences can also be a carrier sentence that the student repeats and rotates through the target word list, or they can be unique and change for each target word.


6. Reading Level:

For students who can read, reading passages that contain a large quantity of their target sound/s is the next step. Passages should begin with a few sentences and then gradually increase in length.

7. Conversation Level:

The last and final step into mastering a target sound is to practice in spontaneous, connected speech or conversation. Up until now, the student may be showing steady progress as the other levels are structured. It’s normal to see a little regression in sound production when first beginning this level. This level can sometimes take a while since the student is building a new habit to replace their old one of incorrect sound production.

What if the student continues to have difficulty?

In any of the levels listed above, the student may have more difficulty compared to the others. This is quite normal. Target sounds are impacted by consonants and vowels that both precede and follow them. These are constantly changing as the target sound is used in connected speech. If a student is having difficulty with a specific word, have the student work back down the levels while practicing the target, and then work back up.

The SLP may also try verbal, visual, or tactile cues to help the student produce or remember the sound. Techniques and examples include:

What can be done in the classroom to help with sound production?

The SLP will most likely provide target words once the student has mastered the sound and can successfully practice with others. Building the student’s phonological awareness skills (listening skills) will also improve speech production. Below are some suggestions.

  • Play rhyming games: Give the student a target word and have them think of as many words, real or non-sense, that rhyme as they can.
  • Practice opposites: Have student say each target word correctly – incorrectly- correctly.
  • Be the student: Say some target words incorrectly and have the student correct you.
  • Auditory Bombardment: While reading books aloud, point out words that contain the student’s target sound/s. Exaggerate your production of the sound while saying the words aloud.
  • Sound Loading: For students who can read, provide them with passages that are loaded with their target sound/s. If needed, have the student underline the target words before reading aloud.
  • Helpful reminders: Work with the student to come up with a signal, or gesture, to help them remember to use their sounds while speaking and reading aloud in the classroom.

In summary, there is no specific timeline or technique for articulation therapy. Each student will progress at their own pace. Work with the SLP in your school for fun ideas to keep your students engaged and making progress!

If you are interested in ways to partner with your school’s SLP, you might also like this post.

About the Author

Kari is a SLP in Washington, D.C., with over 15 years of experience. For the past decade, she has been a clinical supervisor at the George Washington University and serves students in the local public schools. Kari also has a strong interest in international academic and clinical program development. She has mentored, taught, and supervised students and practitioners in Zambia, Guyana, Ghana, Mexico, and Cambodia. She has coupled her passion for global topics with speech pathology to create Global Speech Therapy. You can visit her blog at GlobalSpeechTherapy.Com or her TpT store at Global Speechie.

Still have questions about articulation and helping students in your classroom achieve their goals? Feel free to contact her at Kari@GlobalSpeechTherapy.Com.

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