Differentiating Articulation, Phonology, and Oral Motor

By Pam Marshalla

Q: I still don’t get how to explain the difference between “articulation” and “phonology” and “oral motor.” Can you take a run at that again?

I think my last answer to this was way too involved. Here is the short and sweet of it using phoneme M as an example in a very simplified way:


ARTICULATION concerns the mechanics of sound production: The position assumed by the jaw, lips, tongue, and velum during production of a phoneme. For example, the jaw elevates to produce M.

Oral Motor

ORAL MOTOR concerns the physiology of movement itself: How muscles contract and relax in order to cause jaw, lip, tongue, and velar movement to occur in the expression of phonemes. For example, the temporomandibular, masseter, and pterygoid muscles contract to elevate the jaw during production of M.


PHONOLOGY concerns the linguistics of phoneme usage: How the language is expressed in phonemes; the rules of how phonemes are allowed to be within a language. For example, the English language allows [+nasal] consonants such as M, and in English M can occur either before a vowel (e.g., me), after a vowel (e.g., am), before another consonant (e.g., jump), after another consonant (e.g., term) or sequenced between two consonants (e.g., dorms).

Speech Therapy

SPEECH THERAPY requires knowledge of all three of these sciences. We have to know how the mouth is shaped to form individual phonemes, how muscles contract and relax to cause those movements to occur, and how phonemes are allowed to occur within the language.

Therapy integrates all three elements, and focuses more in one area or another depending upon the client. Some clients have to learn how to shape the mouth to form phonemes. Others need to learn how to get their muscles to function in order to shape their mouth to form phonemes. Still others need to learn how to use phonemes within the language (within and across words). And of course there are those clients who have to learn all three of these things.

This is only my perspective. I recognize that others may argue against it. As Van Riper said, we all do this our own way.

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