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  • Amy Morgan Linde

How Moving from Isolation to Syllable and Word Level Can Make You Question Your Sanity

After feeling triumphant because a previously unstimulable child has been rocking through isolation level practice with wonderful accuracy, the moment of trying a word for the first time can be pretty defeating. There’s the error, all over again.


It’s true that there’s a lot of skill that goes into teaching a sound in isolation and motivating kids to get enough repetitions to stabilize that production. It’s sometimes shockingly difficult to just add one vowel before or after the target sound. That extreme difficulty can make kids declare that they “just can’t do it” and make therapists secretly wonder if maybe they’re right.


The challenge in this scenario is that there are few “pure” instances of articulation impairment. So often, words, and even syllables, carry a phonological or language based representation that triggers the motor movement of their errored production. As soon as the therapist introduces a syllable, or even more challenging, a word, that previously perfect sound in isolation flies out the window and it can feel like you’re back to square one. The trickiest part of therapy may be to very carefully move kids from the sound in isolation, that purely phonetic, no meaning or habit attached, production, to achieving the new motor pattern in stimuli that are connected with the phonemic event, reminding them of how they’ve made that sound thousands of times in the past.


First of all, moving through syllables as a level of practice in the hierarchy is a critical step to provide the opportunity for this practice for many kids, which is why we’ve built it into Marine Team TM. It’s simply too hard to expect them to abandon their habit when presenting them with words they’ve said thousands of times. If syllables prove challenging as well, as they often do, then segmenting the syllable can often relieve the difficulty. This changes the nature of the task to one of producing the target sound in isolation, either before or after producing a vowel in isolation. Over a few repetitions, you can try to blend the two back together. If the child succeeds, great! Praise them for the good work. If blending triggers the habit, appreciate their hard work and break the syllable up again until they’re successful. It may take a few tries over a session or two, but with enough segmentation and blending, any child can master the progression from isolation to syllable level. And from there, once they’ve mastered syllables, they’re ready for words!


Fey, M. E. (1992). Articulation and phonology: Inextricable constructs in speech pathology. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 23(3), 225-232.


Gierut, J. A., Morrisette, M. L., & Ziemer, S. M. (2010). Nonwords and generalization in children with phonological disorders. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.