Ah, the age-old question—what words should we use in therapy for kids with speech sound disorders? There are a number of choices, each with some good arguments in its favor:
This study checked out differences in treatment success for each of these three word types for 24 children ages 3 to 7. Therapy for each kid focused on one, word-initial complex phoneme (/r/, /l/, “th” or “ch”), with five target words (either high-frequency, academic vocab, or nonwords, depending on which group the child was assigned to). The article describes the activities within each 50-minute intervention session, and supplemental treatment materials are available on a lab website (woo!). Each child’s progress was compared with his own performance in a baseline condition.
So, the winner? It’s the best possible news for clinicians, really. All the kids improved their phonological skills, with no significant differences among the words types. The authors point out that in reality, you’ll probably want to incorporate multiple types of words into your sessions. Like starting with nonwords for that “clean slate” effect, then moving to academic vocabulary words after a while to help boost those skills. But either way, the initial familiarity of the words likely won’t make or break your therapy.
A second research question looked at treatment intensity. By splitting their subject pool in half (which, keep in mind, meant the number of kids per condition was pretty small), they found a large effect of treatment after 19 sessions (accuracy of target sounds in new words), and a medium effect after 11. I doubt anyone here is shocked—shocked!—that more therapy leads to better outcomes, but the size of the difference was actually pretty surprising. As we know, many kids don’t just make slow and steady progress, but need to get to that point where things start to “click.” It’s good to realize that the “clicking” place might be a little further away than we think.
Cummings, A., Hallgrimson, J., & Robinson, S. (2018). Speech Intervention Outcomes Associated With Word Lexicality and Intervention Intensity. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1044/2018_LSHSS-18-0026.