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Speech Hierarchy: How SLPs Help You Articulate Sounds

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Have you ever wondered how Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) help clients articulate the sounds they struggle with? In this post, we’re breaking down the process that SLPs use for articulation-based therapy – check out the diagram below for an overview of what we’ll be talking about.

When learning any new skill, it’s important to have a foundation to build off of – you wouldn’t dive into a pool without learning to swim in the shallow end first! The same goes for speech therapy; someone looking to improve their articulation of a certain sound will start at the very top of the triangle, focused on isolating the sound, and work their way to the bottom. This is called “speech hierarchy”.


Let’s say the target sound we’re working on is /l/: the first step is training your brain to approach it differently. How someone pronounces a sound comes out of habit, so practice is key to change the memorized muscle motor patterns. The SLP will explain how to form this sound in the mouth - in the case of /l/, it involves putting the tongue up behind the teeth, blowing air and vibrating your vocal folds.


Knowing how to pronounce the isolated sound is great, but the next step is to blend that sound with a vowel. For /l/, a client would practice saying “la-la-la”, “lee-lee-lee”, “loo-loo-loo”, etc. It might sound funny, but these are the building blocks that help form the words we use every day. Again, SLPs will explain what each part of your mouth needs to do to articulate those syllables.

Word Initial

Using those building blocks, the SLP will transition the client to words that start with the target sound like “lemon”, “look”, and “light” in the case of /l/. This allows the focus to remain on forming the target sound first and then connecting it to the rest of the word.

Other Word Positions & Blends

The next step is to change up where that sound falls in the word. Using our example, this would include medial /l/ words like “jello” and “elephant”, and final /l/ words like “ball” and “sell”. Another important skill is being able to articulate blends, where a consonant combines with the target sound. For example, “blue”, “plane” and “climb” are all /l/ blends.


Once a client has reached this level, they’re ready to combine /l/ words with others, like “the big lemon”; “I like candy”; “the blue hat”. With all the different words to focus on while remembering the new sound position, this level is more challenging.


At this stage, the client is ready to tackle full sentences that feature the target sound in multiple positions. An example for /l/ would be “I like playing with my ball”. The key is to practice at this stage until the sentence sounds fluent with the new target sound.


The last step is generalizing the skill to conversation. The main difference is that all the previous stages focused on changing muscle memory patterns and physical articulation skills, while this stage focuses on attention. The client has to remember to use their new target sound in everyday conversation. In therapy, this involves using prompts and conversation starters to get a client to use the target sound as they would in a typical conversation. Succeeding at this level shows that you’re ready to take on this sound in your daily life!

Something to remember is that there is no set timeline for moving through these stages. Some people may be able to skip a level, or some levels may take longer than others. The most important thing is to keep practicing – check out our free worksheets (also in French) organized by word position and sentence position.

If you’re interested in learning more about articulation-based speech therapy for you or someone you know, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.


Andalusia Speech Therapy has four clinics in Ontario and offers virtual therapy to anywhere in the world. Contact us more for information.

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