Coarticulation is the ability to


Coarticulation is the ability to

It’s Coarticulation!

I’ve been wanting to do a blog post about this subject that is near and dear to my heart, but I’m not sure I can do it justice.  In any case, here I go.

Warning: this is going to be a long one because I have lots to say!

In the mid 90s I attended graduate school at LSU and had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Amelia Hudson who turned me on to Coarticulation.

Coarticulation is the idea that each speech sound is affected by every other speech sound around it, and each sound slightly changes according to its environment.  In a nutshell, it sounds take on qualities of other sounds that precede or follow them (our articulators either anticipate the next sound or carryover qualities from the prior sound).

I mean, we don’t speak in single sounds.
We rarely even speak in single words. We speak in connected strings of syllables.

A good example of coarticulation involves words that have the vowel a  and a nasal consonant /n/ or /m/.  Try to sound out “can” or “ham.”
Better yet,  try to teach a child to sound out these words.  Talk about confusing!! It breaks all the rules because of coarticulation.

The vowel a takes on a nasal quality- changing it completely.

We produce 1 syllable in about a fifth of a second or an average of about 15 sounds per second.  Not only is speech production FAST it requires the coordination of about 100 muscles and countless neurotransmissions.  It’s a miracle any of us get a word out!

So while we speak… our lips, jaw, tongue and vocal folds move very quickly! Our brains choreograph the movements we need to make so that all of the movements needed for vowels and consonants are produced simultaneously.  To do this, sounds can’t exist in isolation, they flow together so that our speech sounds smooth, and we are able to produce 5 syllables per second.  Otherwise we would talk like robots!

Well, with all of that intermingling of sounds going on, individual sound productions get “tweaked” in the process.

When linguists or professors teach about coarticulation- you will see this example time and time again.  I would “cite” where it comes from but I don’t think anyone even knows where it comes from anymore.  It’s the classic example:

When you say the word “happy”….

Before you’ve even uttered a word, you unconsciously have moved your tongue into position to say a

So while you’re saying h, it will sound a little bit like a

Once you get to a you will already be closing your lips for pp

and while your lips are closed to say pp you’re already moving your tongue to where it needs to be to say y.  Even while you’re saying y your lips are still coming out of the closed position you needed to say pp.  Because it’s as well coordinated as a symphony, the whole word only takes less than half a second.

The wonders of speech production!!

Let’s do another one
(just because I’m a complete word nerd and I love this stuff!)

Let’s say the word “toys.”

Before you’ve made any sound, your tongue has already moved to the alveolar ridge

(the bumpy area behind the top teeth for you non-speech readers:)

So while you’re saying t your tongue is anticipating moving to a retracted position in order to say the diphthong oy (i.e. vowel combo)  and does so before the t  is even complete.

As you’re saying oy your tongue is already moving forward toward the front of the mouth in order to get the tongue tip behind the teeth in order to produce s.  

But wait!! Your ssssss sounded like zzzzzzzz!! 

THAT’s because the voiced oy changed our s into a voiced sound
(and all SLPs know the voiced counterpart of /s/ is /z/.)

The nasality of the diphthong oy carried over into the next consonant.

That’s coarticulation.
Simply put, every sound affects every other sound it “sits” next to.

-Kind of like phonemic peer pressure-

What does that mean for us as therapists? Well, this is what I took away from Dr. Hudson.

Once we’ve established a correct sound production in isolation, let’s take a coarticulation approach to therapy.  After we teach a child a sound in isolation, we usually proceed to practicing it in the initial positions of words (beginning sound).  At this point let’s pair the consonant with vowels that will facilitate (not hinder correct production).

To start practicing /r/ at the beginning of words, pair it with /ʌ/ like “rug.”  The vowel /ʌ/ is produced enough away from the lips that it won’t facilitate lip rounding (the most common error for /r/ that turns /r/ into /w/) We don’t want that!

Pairing /r/ with vowels /u/ or /o/ would be catastrophic (OK, I’m exaggerating but that’s how it feels) because those vowels will encourage lip rounding which may cause our /r/ to revert back to the dreaded /w/.   You will want to work your way up to those front vowels.

The same is true if you want to work on other back vowels like /g/ and /k/. Pair them with back or neutral vowels.  In the early days of teaching consonants produced in the front of the mouth like /p, b, m, n, t, d, f, v, ʃ/ you would want to pair these with vowels also produced in the front of the mouth.

Think phonemic peer pressure.

Once they’ve mastered that, introduce more coarticulation contexts.

You’re not done yet! Coarticulation is your friend and it’s going to bring you farther!

Once you’ve moved on to multiple syllables, it’s time to assess your student.

Let’s see if your student is making consonant errors in all environments or only certain environments.  Ever have a student who could /l/ perfectly in “balloon” but not in all the other word and phrases you throw at him (like “sadly” or “ugly”)?

It’s because of phonemic peer pressure. 

Some coarticulation environments make sounds trickier than others.

Here are the coarticulation “function environments:”

Initial Releaser (IR) is equivalent to initial position.

Final Arrester (FA) is equivalent to final position. 

Vocalic Releaser (VR) refers to when a consonant is sandwiched between 2 vowels such as /r/ in “go around.” 

Abutting Releaser (AR)  refers to a consonant that is preceded by a consonant and followed by vowel such as “th” in “jewel thief.”

Abutting Arrester (AA) refers to when a consonant is preceded by a vowel and followed by another consonant such as /d/in “sidewalk.”

In my opinion and in my experience these also often (but not always) range in difficulty for children in this order.

For an abutting arrester, for example, the vowel that precedes your target consonant may slightly affect it and as you’re producing the target consonant, your brain and mouth are anticipating the following consonant.  Tricky!!

Here are some examples using the target phoneme /s/  (keep in mind the letters before and after the target phoneme is irrelevant, it’s the sounds that matter)

/s/ in vocalic releaser environment : “eraser,” “raw silk,” “I’m from the south.”

/s/ in abutting releaser environment:  “birdseed,”  “by himself,” “I’m in centerfield.”

/s/ in abutting arrester environment: “classroom,” ” baseball game,” “Go across the road.”

It’s good ‘ole medial position brought to a new level of intricacy.

So as I said earlier, once your therapy takes you to multiple syllables, it’s time to assess your student.  You will be a more efficient therapist if you spend your precious therapy time targeting only the environments that your students is demonstrating errors.  It’s always a major A-HA moment when I realize a child isonly making errors in releaser positions (VR and AR)  or many times they’re only making errors only in abutting positions (AR and AA) but never when the sound occurs as a vocalic releaser (VR).

 I have just whittled down our work- the student and I will work only in those contexts!! Woohoo!! This is especially true for children with apraxia.  Coarticulation is THE APPROACH to take with apraxic children; the disorder is, after all, a breakdown in coarticulation!

Dr. Hudson developed protocols to assess articulation in these coarticulation environments (I was proud to be involved in one of her redesigns for the protocol!) but you can also easily make your own assessment.  Her PAIS (Phonetic Analysis of Imitated Speech) is shown here.  Sadly, I don’t think she ever put her name on it.  There is also an oral only version for children with nasality issues and a blend variation.  These documents are usually public domain but I’m having difficulty finding a copy at the moment.

Coarticulation is the ability to

You can easily make your own assessment OR do an informal assessment by having your student repeat phrases after you (with targets in various contexts).

(let’s go back to this example)

This could be your assessment:

/s/ in vocalic releaser environment : have student repeat  “eraser,” “raw silk,” “I’m from the south.”

/s/ in abutting releaser environment:  have the student repeat “birdseed,”  “by himself,” “I’m in center field.”

/s/ in abutting arrester environment: have the student repeat “classroom,” ” baseball game,” “Go across the road.”

You may find that students are struggling more in one environment than others (or only ONE!) In that case, why in the world would you waste precious therapy time drilling sounds in all environments?!

 Let’s be truly diagnostic/prescriptive!

I’ve done voiceless th /θ/for you!

Coarticulation is the ability to

These handy articulation target sheets for voiceless th can be hole-punched and put in a binder (at least that’s what I do). I could not function without my handy dandy sound binder (with dividers between each sound, of course!)

Coarticulation is the ability to

/θ/can be found for free in my TpT store HERE.

Coarticulation is the ability to

So the binder was born with coarticulation therapy in mind, but whether you use a coarticulation approach like I do or not, it’s simply every speech target for every phoneme that you’ll ever need for ANY kind of articulation therapy.  Little did I know that this binder would become my BFF for therapy.

Coarticulation is the ability to

Over the years, I’ve had to replace my binder numerous times; they all get tattered and torn from use abuse! Every SLP I work with begs for a copy of it and all of the grad students I supervise leave their practicum with me clinging to their binder for dear life.  Over the past years, I’ve been revamping it and typing it allllll over again.  I mean, the first copy was actually TYPED on a typewriter (no kidding, and whoa, I just aged myself) so it was time for a facelift, a makeover if you will!

If you grabbed the voiceless th freebie and need more, you can find all of the other phonemes in my TpT Store.

Coarticulation is the ability to

Coarticulation is the ability to

with 17 cover and spine choices included:

Coarticulation is the ability to

Whew, if you’re still reading this- congratulations- you’ve made it through my super long blog post about coarticulation!  You’re made of strong stuff 🙂

(and you’re possibly a true word nerd like me) 

I hope you found it informative and interesting.

 Feel like trying an articulation approach to therapy? Go for it!

You might just feel like the most efficient SLP on the block.