The Relationship Between Speech Sound Disorders and Reading

A few months ago, I attended a seminar on speech sound disorders and dyslexia.  The speaker was Dr. Kelly Farguharson at Florida State University1.  The informative content and data that she provided were very helpful to the clinicians working with children with speech sound disorders and also reading difficulties.  I thought that some of the information could be very useful to parents as well since many parents work with their children at home while they are attending speech articulation therapy.  Although not all children with speech sound disorders have reading disorders, researches show that more than 50% of the children with speech sound disorders experience some difficulties in reading.

Reading is a language-based skill.  Scarborough’s Reading Rope2 shows the complexities involved in learning to read, and early language development is intimately connected to later literacy.  The Scarborough’s reading rope has many strands of skills that are woven together; and through instructions and practice over time these combined and interwoven skills become the foundation of a skilled reader.  The two main strains, language comprehension and word recognition, weave together to produce skilled reading:  fluent execution and coordination of word recognition and text comprehension.  The language comprehension strand is comprised of background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge; whereas the word recognition strand is comprised of phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of familiar words.  The Language Comprehension strand becomes increasingly strategic whereas the Word Recognition strand becomes increasingly automatic, and then later these two strands converge.  In the word recognition strand, phonological awareness skills are closely related to speech sounds.

What is phonological awareness?  It is an awareness of the sound structures of language (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998).  It is the ability to recognize and manipulate the spoken parts of words and sentences; skills such as identifying words that rhyme, segmenting a sentence into words, segmenting a multisyllabic word into syllables, onset-rime segmentation, and phonemic awareness.  Phonemic awareness is the last to develop.

What is phonemic awareness?  Phoneme is the smallest units of speech sound that distinguish one word from another.  For example, the sound /p/ in “tap” separates that word from “tab,” “tag,” and “tan.”   Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual phonemes in spoken words3.  This includes sound blending (blending sounds into words), segmentation (segmenting words into sounds), and deleting sounds from words; in other words, playing with sounds in spoken words.

Phonological awareness skills develop over time and they are crucial for reading success.  When a child is taught explicitly these skills in early years, it can eliminate future reading problems for many students.  It is especially important at the early stages of reading development from pre-school to first grade.

Preschool children with speech sound disorders are at increased risk for deficits with phonological awareness even when their language skills are normal (Anthony et al, 2011.) School age children with speech sound disorders have weaker phonological awareness skills when compared to same age peers (Farquharson, 2012.)  Adolescents with residual speech sound errors have weaker phonological processing skills compared to same age peers (Preston & Edwards, 2007.)


How can parents work with their children to strengthen their phonological awareness skills?

It is best to teach your children the skills in context.  Choose words from their curriculum and books they are reading.  Here are some suggestions to engage your child in activities that will build the child’s skills in phonological awareness:


Typically, a child develops rhyming skills at age 3 and is able to join in rhyming games.  By age 4, a child can recognize words that rhyme, and by age 5 one can produce sounds that rhyme.  There are many good rhyming books on the market, such as the classics “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” “Brown Bear Brown Bear What do you see.”  A few other favorites “Sheep in a Jeep,” “My Truck is Stuck,” “The Bug in the Jug wants a Hug,” “The Nice Mice in the Rice,” “Llama Llama red Pajama,” “Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site,” etc.  You may also ask librarians in your local libraries for recommendations.

Segmenting a Sentence into Words

We can teach young children to orally segment a sentence into words.  By doing so, the children will become aware that a sentence is made up of separate words and that the words are arranged in a specific order to make the sentence meaningful.  A simple way to do this is to clap hands when each word is spoken in a sentence.  Use books that you read to your child every night.  Select short sentences from the story book so it is easy for a young child to remember and repeat after you.  Do this game together a number of times.  When your child is familiar with this game, you may use blocks to represent each word and line the blocks up from left to right on the table top.  This will give your child a visual representation of the spoken sentence you are using.

Segmenting a Word into Syllables

Typically, the ability to segment words into syllables emerges at 48 to 60 months; and, 50% of the children by age 4 can count syllables. Parents can work with their children using words in the speech articulation therapy homework exercises or words in books used in parent-child nightly reading.  The parent and the child can say a target word and clap out the syllables together.  For example, clap out the words hap-py, e-le-phant, com-pu-ter.

Onset-rime Segmentation

Children between the age of 4 to 5 years are developing the onset-rime segmentation skills.  What are “onset” and “rime”?  “Onset” is the consonant or consonant blend at the beginning of a spoken syllable before a vowel, and “rime” is the vowel and any consonants that follow.  It is easy for a child to hear the onset and rime in one syllable words.  For example, in the word CAT, the letter (c) is the onset and (at) is the rime; in the word DOG, the onset is (d) and the rime is (og).  For syllables start with blends, the examples are as in the word SMILES, the onset is (sm) and the rime is (iles); in the word FLAT, the onset is (fl) and the rime is (at); and, in the word SPLAT, the onset is (spl) and the rime is (at).  A rime begins with the first vowel and continues to the end of the syllable.

If a one syllable word starts with a vowel, then it has zero onset; for example, the word UP does not have an onset.  Other examples are words such as ill, end, oar, etc.

Each syllable has an onset and a rime or just a rime.  For example, the word ABOVE has only a rime in the first syllable (a) and both an onset (b) and rime (ove) in the second syllable.

Young children are competent at analyzing spoken words into onsets and rimes but not into phonemes when onsets or rimes consist of more than one phoneme.  For Example, the word SMILES, young children can mentally analyze the word into (sm) and (iles) without being taught to do so but have difficulty analyzing it into /s/, /m/ in the onset and /i/, /l/, /z/ phonemes in the rime even with instructions.5

When your child is ready to practice onset-rime segmentation, there are many commercial practice materials available for you to use at home.  Also, the speech therapy homework exercises have many age-appropriate words that you can use to practice with your child.

Phonemic Awareness

  • Blending sounds into words

By age 5 to 6 years, a child is able to blend three to four sounds to make a word.6 For example, c-a-t makes cat, s-i-t makes sit.

  • Segmenting words into sounds

By age 5 to 6 years, a child is also able to segment sounds in words that have three to four sounds; for example, cat= c-a-t.

  • Deleting sounds from words

Deleting sounds from words comes later when a child is about 6 to 7 years old.  For example, “say ‘Houseboat’, take away the House, what is left?” and the child should be able to say Boat.  Also, “say ‘take’ and take away the ‘t’ sound, what is left?”, the child should be able to say Ache.


There are many commercial materials that you can use to practice with your children, just remember that developmentally, according to the capacity and demand model, you do not want to task your children before they are cognitively ready.  When you have questions, you can get advice and suggestions from your children’s speech pathologists and reading teachers.



  1. Kelly Farquharson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Florida State University.
  2. Scarborough, H.S. (2001). Connecting Early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice.  In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp.97-110). New York, NY:  Guilford Press
  4. Johnson, K.L., & Rosemary, B.A. (2003); Paul, R (2007); Simpson & Andreassen (2008)
  5. Onset/rime research,