Toddler and Minimal Pairs

By Pam Marshalla

happy toddler boyQ: I am working with a two-year-old who uses a guttural back sound for initial T in words. He can say initial D correctly. Do I need to be worried about this T?

Yes and no. When I work with kids under three years of age, I do not concern myself with how they produce individual phonemes within individual words. So I don’t find it important that the child can say “two” with a correct T, for example. But I am concerned that T is emerging somehow.

What the research shows us is that toddlers engage in phonological experimentation and they make lots of errors on words during the first two years of their phonological life, from about one year until three years of age. During this period they learn how to produce almost every phoneme, but they make lots of mistakes when they use them to construct words (see references).

Toddlers who are still messing up words are in the process of learning to make front sounds and back sounds, high sounds and low sounds, oral sounds and nasal sounds, consonant sounds and vowel sounds, fricated sounds and non-fricated sounds, voiced sounds and voiceless sounds, stopped sounds and continuant sounds, lip sounds and non-lip sounds, tongue sounds and non-tongue sounds, and so forth. In other words, they are figuring out how their sound-making equipment works.

Therefore in my therapy I help them learn all these feature oppositions. I teach the features by playing with and practicing all phonemes in isolation, syllables, and lots of different words. And I work on helping him learn to listen carefully to sound as I produce it and as he produces it.

I do not worry if the child can say T in the word “toy” if I hear T emerging somewhere else. Perhaps the client can produce “eat” or “hot” with an emerging T. In this case I am concerned that he is adding voiceless-ness, occlusion, and movements in the front of the mouth to his repertoire.

(By the way, the anterior lingual sounds—T, D, N, L, S, and Z–– are learned because the jaw learns to bang up-and-down, not because the tongue begins to move… another topic for another post!)

I teach my toddlers and young preschool children how to produce ALL sounds at this time, and I give them time to make lots of mistakes in words, and I teach families to celebrate it all.

Then, when the child is ready, we move on to minimal pairs that focus on the distinctions that need to be mastered in words. In your example, we might work on “two” and “do” or “two” and “goo”. Now we are adding a reason to say the right sound at the right time within the language.

In other words, I work on the speech first and language second. I.e., I work on PHONETICS before I work on PHONOLOGY.


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