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The Types of Phonological Processes Explained

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

When children learn to speak, they need to use a wide range of sounds. However, due to the complexity of speech sounds and the cognitive demands of language learning, children may experience difficulties producing and perceiving certain sounds.


So, children pronounce words the best way they can. That is why children pronounce words like “rain” as “wain” or “plane” as “pane.”


While this may be cute, it is a normal aspect of language learning that is worth examining. Children do this because they are learning to synchronize the movements of their tongue, lips, jaw, teeth, and palate in order to produce speech sounds, and all children make errors in their speech sounds during this process.



What Are Phonological Processes?


Phonological processes are patterns of sound substitutions that children employ to simplify their speech. Phonological processes are the predictable patterns of speech errors used by typically developing children to simplify their speech as they learn to talk.


While young, children hear the speech sounds of the language being used around them but are unable to produce all of them yet. This is because they do not possess the ability to coordinate the tongue, lips, teeth, palate, and jaw for clear speech. Therefore, they simplify complex words in predictable ways until they develop the coordination necessary to articulate clearly.


As a result, their speech does not resemble that of adults. It would be overwhelming for a young child's brain to attempt to speak with all of the sounds an adult can produce. To make speaking easier, the child's brain develops rules, known as phonological processes, to simplify speech sounds and make words easier to say.


For instance, producing sounds at the back of the mouth, such as /k/ and /g/, can be challenging for young children. Many children simplify this by implementing a rule (the phonological process) that says that for a sound produced at the back of the mouth, change it to a sound produced at the front of the mouth (where it's easier). As a result, /k/ becomes /t/, and /g/ becomes /d/. This explains why it's typical for young children to say "titty tat" instead of "kitty cat."


It's important to note that these rules are beyond the child's control. They do not choose to omit consonants at the end of words or alter sounds. Their brain does it automatically, and they may not even be aware that they're doing it.


Types of Phonological Processes


At certain ages, we anticipate that children will use phonological processes. It’s only a problem when children don’t attempt to outgrow the use of these processes beyond the typical period. While most children naturally outgrow this stage, others may require speech therapy to overcome it.


All children use some types of phonological processes. Let us explore the types so that you can understand how they work. Here are some types of typical phonological processes:


1. Assimilation


Assimilation is a phonological process in which a sound becomes more similar to a neighboring sound in a word, due to the influence of that neighboring sound. For example, if a child says "gog" instead of "dog", this is an example of assimilation, as the /g/ sound becomes more like the following /d/ sound in the word.


Another example is when a child says "baba" instead of "bottle", where the /t/ sound is replaced by the /b/ sound from the previous syllable. This is known as regressive assimilation. Assimilation is a common phonological process that occurs when one sound in a word is influenced by another sound and becomes more similar to it.


Here are some examples of assimilation in children:


  • Nasal Assimilation: This occurs when a non-nasal consonant becomes nasal due to the influence of a neighboring nasal consonant. For example, the word "tent" may be pronounced as "temt" because of the influence of the nasal "m" sound.


  • Labial Assimilation: This occurs when a non-labial consonant becomes a labial consonant due to the influence of a neighboring labial consonant. For example, the word "cup" may be pronounced as "pup" because of the influence of the labial "p" sound.


  • Velar Assimilation: This occurs when a non-velar consonant becomes a velar consonant due to the influence of a neighboring velar consonant. For example, the word "dog" may be pronounced as "gog" because of the influence of the velar "g" sound.


  • Voicing Assimilation: This occurs when a voiceless consonant becomes voiced due to the influence of a neighboring voiced consonant. For example, the word "cat" may be pronounced as "gat" because of the influence of the voiced "g" sound.


  • Devoicing Assimilation: This occurs when a voiced consonant becomes voiceless due to the influence of a neighboring voiceless consonant. For example, the word "bed" may be pronounced as "pet" because of the influence of the voiceless "p" sound.


2. Dissimilation


Dissimilation is a phonological process in which a child changes a sound in a word to make it more distinct from another sound in the same word. The goal of dissimilation is to make the word easier to say or to avoid a difficult sound sequence.


For example, a child might pronounce the word "yellow" as "yewow" to avoid the difficult sequence of two "l" sounds. Similarly, the child might pronounce the word "spaghetti" as "pasketti" to avoid the difficult sequence of two "s" sounds.


Dissimilation is a common phonological process in young children's speech development, and it typically disappears as their speech becomes more mature. Parents and caregivers can help children overcome dissimilation by modeling correct pronunciation and providing gentle correction when needed.


There are several types of dissimilation that can occur in children's speech. Here are some examples:


  • Regressive dissimilation: In this type of dissimilation, a sound that comes later in the word influences the sound that comes before it. For example, a child might pronounce the word "apple" as "appe" because the "l" sound is influenced by the "p" sound that comes after it.


  • Progressive dissimilation: In this type of dissimilation, a sound that comes earlier in the word influences the sound that comes after it. For example, a child might pronounce the word "banana" as "banano" because the second "n" sound is influenced by the first "n" sound.


  • Total dissimilation: In this type of dissimilation, a sound is completely changed or eliminated from the word. For example, a child might pronounce the word "spoon" as "poon" because the "s" sound is eliminated.


  • Partial dissimilation: In this type of dissimilation, a sound is changed only slightly from its original pronunciation. For example, a child might pronounce the word "water" as "wawa" because the "t" sound is changed to a "w" sound.


These types of dissimilation can occur in combination with other phonological processes, such as deletion, substitution, and addition, as children develop their speech skills.


3. Deletion


Deletion is a common phonological process in which a child omits or leaves out a sound or syllable in a word. This process is a natural part of children's speech development as they learn to produce more complex sounds and syllables.


There are several types of deletion that can occur in children's speech:


  • Final consonant deletion: In this type of deletion, a child leaves off the final consonant in a word. For example, the word "cat" may be pronounced as "ca."


  • Cluster reduction: In this type of deletion, a child leaves off one or more consonants in a consonant cluster. For example, the word "stop" may be pronounced as "top." Cluster reduction is a phonological process in which a child simplifies a group of consonant sounds by turning them into a single sound or a more manageable combination of sounds, as seen in examples like "poon" for "spoon" and "tuck" for "truck." Typically, this process should resolve by age 4 for words without /s/ and by age 5 for words with /s/.


  • Syllable deletion: In this type of deletion, a child leaves off an entire syllable in a word. Weak Syllable Deletion is a phonological process in which a child deletes an unstressed syllable in a word, such as saying "nana" for "banana" or "puter" for "computer." Typically, this process resolves by the age of 4.


  • Unstressed syllable deletion: In this type of deletion, a child leaves off an unstressed syllable in a word. For example, the word "potato" may be pronounced as "tato."


It's important to note that while deletion is a normal part of children's speech development, it should decrease as a child's speech becomes more mature. If a child is still exhibiting significant deletion patterns past a certain age (typically around 4-5 years old), it may be a sign of a speech or language disorder and professional intervention may be needed.


4. Epenthesis


Epenthesis is a phonological process where a child inserts a sound or a syllable in between two sounds in a word. This is a common occurrence in young children who are still developing their language skills.


For example, a child might say "buh-lue" instead of "blue" or "su-pas-ghetti" instead of "spaghetti." The child is inserting an extra sound in the middle of the word to make it easier to pronounce.


Epenthesis is a normal part of language development, and most children grow out of it by the age of four or five. However, if a child continues to use epenthesis beyond this age or if it is accompanied by other speech difficulties, it may be a sign of a speech or language disorder and may require professional intervention.


5. Metathesis


Metathesis is a phonological process where a child switches the order of two sounds in a word. This is a common occurrence in young children who are still developing their language skills.


For example, a child might say "aminal" instead of "animal.” The child is switching the positions of the "n" and "m" sounds in the word.


Metathesis is a normal part of language development, and most children grow out of it by the age of four or five. However, if a child continues to use metathesis beyond this age or if it is accompanied by other speech difficulties, it may be a sign of a speech or phonological disorder.


What is a Phonological Disorder?


If a child continues to exhibit phonological processes beyond the expected age range, or if the child uses an excessive amount of phonological processes that hinder their speech intelligibility, it could be a sign of a phonological disorder.


It can be challenging to cope with having a child whose speech is unintelligible to others, as this can lead to frustration for the child. Children with phonological disorders may exhibit tantrums, such as crying, screaming, sighing loudly, stomping, or throwing objects.


They may display "aggressive" behaviors, such as biting, hitting, pulling, and shoving, often due to feeling misunderstood and unable to effectively communicate their wants and needs. These behaviors not only affect the child but also the parent or caregiver.


However, parents can take solace in knowing that most children will exhibit improved speech intelligibility over time, and speech-language pathologists and their teams are available to help. Consistent speech therapy can be highly effective in targeting phonological processes, leading to faster improvements in speech intelligibility.


Help Your Child Read


If you fear that your child has not mastered phonological processes and is still using them, or that there may be some phonological disorders, please get help. For example, you can join our childhood literacy programs. These programs focus on childhood development of essential skills through group learning, therapy, and so on.


Consult with a speech-language pathologist (SLP). An SLP can assess the child's speech and provide a diagnosis of the phonological disorder. They can also develop a personalized treatment plan to target specific areas of difficulty.


You can also sign your child up for consistent speech therapy with an SLP. Regular speech therapy sessions can help children improve their speech sounds and intelligibility. The SLP will work with the child to practice correct sound production and may use activities and games to make the therapy sessions engaging and fun.


As the child progresses, encouraging and praising their efforts can boost their confidence and motivation to continue working on their speech. Parents and caregivers can provide positive feedback for correct sounds and offer gentle correction for incorrect sounds.


It is always joyful to watch children develop through developmental milestones and achieve new skills. While phonological processes are cute when your child is very young, take action when they are not outgrowing them.


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