Snack Shacks and Ship Trips: The Phonological Contrast Approach to Pediatric Speech Sound Disorders

Children with phonological disorders make speech sound errors that interfere with their intelligibility and ability to communicate.

A child with a phonological disorder might pronounce the words ship, sip, chip and tip as the same word, tip. The simplification occurs because the /t/ sound is easier to produce than the initial sounds in ship, sip, and chip. The /s/ in sip and the /t/ in tip are made with the tongue tip in the same position. As a result of simplified sound and word productions, children are unable to signal different meanings among some similar-sounding words.1

To address these issues, we can use the phonological contrast approach. The activities used in this therapy and its effectiveness in highly communicative, interactive contexts, make it a widely accepted strategy when treating phonological disorders.

Minimal Pairs

Phonological contrast therapy focuses on the needs of children who simplify sounds.2 It highlights changes in word meaning that come from changes in the way sounds are made.3 The approach helps children realize that changing a sound in a word can change the word’s meaning.

Aiming to teach children to notice and communicate the differences in meaning, the SLP exposes children to pairs of words, known as minimal pairs. The word pairs vary in a phoneme and meaning (e.g., wing vs. ring and ting vs. sing).4,5 The contrasting words also differ only in one sound, calling attention to how different sounds signal different meanings.

Intervention Contexts

Two different activities are available for phonological contrast intervention:

  1. Picture Naming Tasks
  2. Contextualized Theme-Based Activities

Picture Naming Tasks

Phonological contrast interventions expose children to contrasting words (such as cop vs. top) in drill-like tasks. Clinicians arrange activities that produce contrasts in phonemes (e.g., /z/ vs. /d/) to convey different words (e.g., zip vs. dip).6,7

In these activities, children encounter different word meanings as they label pairs of picture cards. While some labeling of paired picture cards occurs in game-like tasks, the picture naming places emphasis on production of isolated words.

Contextualized Theme-Based Activities

Natural communicative contexts are a great therapy tool. Early on in an intervention, clinicians can plan sessions that emphasize the need to communicate.8-11 Creating an interactive, theme-based activity gives children reasons to make meaningful word contrasts while they talk about their experiences.

Ship Trip
In taking an imaginary “ship trip,” players can skip to a ship; slip getting on the ship; and feel the ship tip, dip, and drip as it zips along. When children encounter opportunities to use certain words in a communicative context, they realize the impact that sound contrasts make in signaling different meanings.

Snack Shack
Children might be placed in an imaginary context such as operating a snack shop where they pack, sell, serve, and eat snacks.12  The SLP and the child converse as they take on different shop roles and strive to achieve goals.

Depending on the error pattern(s), the child may be given the opportunity to contrast words with and without blends (e.g., snack or smack vs. sack) or words with phonemes made in a different place or manner (e.g., whack, rack, lack, sack, tack). The clinician and child interact as they whack open sacks or boxes with snacks to stack on a rack, pack snacks in sacks, discover tacks (pictured on cards) in a sack with snacks, and stack and smack on snacks that crack.

The customer and shop worker can encounter the need to ask questions, make and respond to requests, give explanations, and make comments about the snacks or work to be done in the snack shack. The context supports the need to signal target words.

Producing Target Sounds and Meanings

Children with phonological disorders need to learn to signal differences in meaning in interactive contexts where words achieve communicative purposes. Interactive playful contexts can help clinicians guide children toward this goal. Signaling differences in meaning engages children and motivates them to produce targeted sound changes.

In planning the theme-based play contexts, clinicians can elicit targeted words and sounds in interactive exchanges even at initial stages of intervention.13 Using conversational exchanges within meaning-based activities can draw children’s attention to phonemic contrasts and capitalize on functions to elicit correct pronunciation.

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  2. Bauman-Waengler, 2000
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  4. Weiner, F. (1981). Treatment of phonological disability using the method of meaningful contrast: Two case studies. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 46, 97-103.
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  7. Barlow and Girut 2002
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  13. Culatta, Setzer, & Horn, Facilitating Speech and Language…, 2005.
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