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The Phonological Contrast Therapy Efficacy Essay (Article)

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Updated: May 17th, 2020


Speech-language pathologists are working in schools to help children who cannot speak properly enhance their condition. Those who have functional phonological disorders correspond to the majority of them and compile into a great portion of the professionals’ load. A phonological disorder is “a specific term used to describe error patterns of speech that reflect a linguistic (i.e., phonological) speech disorder in which speech difficulties arise from differences in developmental rules and in the organization of the individual child’s sound system relative to the adult or target speech community” (Williams 7). This case is also crucial because these kids often have concomitant academic and linguistic issues. Thus, the disorder negatively influences different spheres of their lives in future including lack of friends and impossibility to get desired the position. To prevent such consequences, the involvement of a speech-language pathologist is needed. Moreover, it should be observed until eight and a half years, as it is a lynchpin period for the speech normalization (Gierut 229). Phonological contrast therapy is said to be the best one, as it helps the majority of children with speech issues. The contrasts are targeted differently depending on the approach that is used.

Selection of Target Sounds

Different therapies can be used to help the children with speech disorders. To choose one, professionals refer to the treatment efficacy. According to it, we define:

  • Effectiveness – check whether it helps or not;
  • Effects – distinguish the alterations that occur due to the treatment;
  • Efficiency – identify the best treatment in comparison with others.

Gierut supposed that “the key to treatment efficacy for phonological disorders may lie in the initial selection of target sounds for treatment. In target sound selection, the ultimate goal is to induce the greatest phonological change or generalization in a child’s sound system” (Gierut 230). Generalization presupposes that a sound that was treated within a framework of particular contexts will be also influenced when is found in new ones. The more complex properties, the greatest change happen. To choose proper sounds for treatment, the professional should take into consideration three major factors.

The consistency of the error. In the child’s speech flow, the error may occur in two ways. Firstly, it can be observed every time he/she uses the sound; the context plays no role here. Secondly, the error may happen from time to time, which means that in some cases the child is able to pronounce it correctly.

Normative age of acquisition. Professionals claim that it is better to treat the sounds regarding the progression of their learning and to choose as targets those that are acquired earlier. As they start to be used at a developmentally early age, it means that they are easier to articulate and pronounce. Thus, for girls /o/ emerge at the age of 4 years and 6 months and for boys at 7 years (Gierut 233).

The number of errors to be treated. Depending on the number of sounds, on which a child is to be taught, the goal attack strategies are chosen.

To make the therapy effective, the child should practice twice a day (20 minutes in total) and twice weekly (30 minutes each time) for 9 weeks (Baker and McLeod 108). Depending on the case, the duration of the treatment can be changed. For example, it can be a set of sessions that last for an hour (including 10 minutes of non-speech activity) and are visited three times a week (Gierut 1054).

Minimal Pairs

Many researchers who worked in the field of historical linguistics paid their attention to the issue of phonological change, the diachronic sound change, in particular. They believed that “the conditions influencing phonological change have emerged along space-time and/or internal-external dimensions and are most typically reported as language-specific rule-governed phenomena” (Gierut 1050).

The clinical treatment of the phonologically disordered child starts with the implementation of the controlled conditions for the alteration of the sound, which is not pronounced correctly. The therapy allows tracing the process of change and defining the most relevant conditions. Such approach can be managed during the relatively short period of time, as it is based on the linguistic constructs. Thus, acquiring the decent structure and function of phonemes happens on the basis of their repetitive contrasting, which allows a child to overlearn the peculiarities of pronunciation.

Two words that are similar but have one unlike sound, which changes their meanings, are called a minimal pair or opposition. According to the minimal pair treatment, “a child is presented with such forms to reduce the occurrence of homonymy, illustrate the contrastive function of sounds in language, and enhance the interpretability of the message in communication” (Gierut 234). The courses of phonological change were identified while describing these concepts. One of them, lexical diffusion, is said to be spread in phonological disorders.

It is crucial to know how the sounds differ according to the place, manner and voice because these features lie in the foundation of contrast between the targets. Thus, the easiest minimal pair can be observed with voiceless /p/ and voiced /b/ (pea- key). To create a decent minimal pair, the professional is to select a word with the target sound and a word with a sound that is familiar to the child (Barlow and Gierut 58). Such contrast is obligatory to achieve success in treatment. In this way, it is possible to choose a sound that the kid uses to substitute the one that is taught. For example, we can take a case of stopping. If a child tends to use /t/ instead of /s/, one can be presented with such words as sew – toe.

Maximal Oppositions

As the minimal opposition was based on the non-major sound features, the contrast between its target sound and a common one related to the. In the maximal opposition, the airstream plays a greater role, and the sounds are divided into obstruent and sonorant. So sounds /p/ and /r/ can be contrasted (pea – rea). Dealing with more structures and functions of phonemes at the same time (comparing to minimal pairs), the suppression of changed distinctive features of the sounds occurs to be more intense.

The maximal opposition is also an approach that deals with the combination of a target sound and a familiar one in a pair. Its distinguishing feature is the fact that the other sound is the one that the child uses correctly. Continuing referring the target sound as /s/, we can choose the word sew and combine it with no. Dealing with /n/, we avoid all possible connections with the kid’s substitutionary sounds. One more way to create an opposition is to use the words that will allow to avoid reference to the sounds preferred by a child and are excluded from one’s repertoire. In this way, the error that refers to the target sound may be combined with another one. We can make a pair sew-row in our case. Thus, stopping error is connected with liquid gliding one.

Considering all approaches to minimal pairs opposition treatment, Gierut came to the conclusion that:

  • “Teaching minimal pairs differing by many features was as effective as or more effective than teaching pairs differing by few features;
  • Teaching minimal pairs differing by major class features was as effective as or more effective than teaching pairs differing by non-major class features;
  • Teaching minimal pairs comparing two new phonemes was as effective as or more effective than teaching one new phoneme compared to its substituted phone” (Gierut 1057).

Multiple Oppositions

Multiple oppositions therapy can be contrasted with the minimal pairs, as it focuses on three and more sound errors at the same time (Williams 12). This approach is the best for children whose speech is hardly understood by the listeners who do not know them. Its benefit also deals with the time needed for the treatment, as utilizing it the professional can improve his/her phonological system and teach a child to speak clearly spending less time than is needed for other methods. Williams offers to treat mainly phoneme collapse with the help of multiple oppositions. Phoneme collapse occurs when a child uses one particular sound instead of a number of others. For example, /s/, /f/ and /l/ can be substituted by /t/ in such words as sore, fore and lore.

A distance metric is to be used for the selection of the appropriate targets. It takes into consideration the function that the sound has in the sound system of the individual. So the target sounds are selected on the basis of their “maximal distinctiveness from the substituted sound in terms of place, manner, voice and linguistic unit, i.e. a single consonant /k/ or a cluster /kl/” (Williams 46). Thus, referring to the example of different sounds substituted by /t/, we may say that the professional can start with choosing such targets as /l/ or /r/ because they are the most distinct ones.

As a rule, this kind of therapy deals with four sound errors at the same time. By dint of this approach, the child starts to feel the contrast between the target sounds relatively quickly. One’s organs of speech move differently to produce them within one speech flow, which makes the process more complicated and facilitates to learning. The multiple oppositions therapy allows contrasting more features, which positively influences the generalization and streamlines the acquisition of the phonological system.

Empty Set

The empty set is one more therapy that presupposes creation of the binary opposition. It is suggested to use new sounds that differ in their non-major features (that are considered in minimal pairs). The very term is taken from mathematical theory. Thus, we can compare numbers 7, 9 and 5, which are separate but treated as a set of three, and new sounds that a kid is not able to produce together after the clinician as well as separately.

Utilizing the empty set, the clinician offers the child to deal with rather complex tasks. This approach is said to be effective, as it promotes the learning process. Gierut underlines that its framework should be decently established for the domain of phonology (Gierut 236). When the child goes through the challenging way of obtaining the structure of particular sounds, he/she copes with the others easily.

The main distinctive feature that differentiates empty set and minimal pair therapy is its omission of the sounds that are homonymous. Thus, it takes distinctive sounds as targets that will help the kid to generalize other non-stimulable sounds (Williams 151). To create an empty set, the professional is to select two consonant phonemes different in place, manner, and voice. They also are to belong to obstruents and sonorants.

The empty set is said to be of advantage mostly for children who suffer from moderate and severe speech disorder (Baker and McLeod 110). The target sounds are the ones the child is not stimulable for. For example, if a child is not able to pronounce /p/ and /l/ correctly, they will be selected as targets due to their maximal opposition.

This therapy is very effective because by learning the peculiarities of different complex sounds, the kid enhances one’s knowledge regarding the whole system and faces fewer issues with other sounds.

Turkish Language and Phonological Contrast Therapy

A speech disorder is also treated with the help of phonological contrast therapy in Turkey. Topbas and Ünal conducted a study to find out how effective it is. They utilized minimal pairs treatment to help the twin girls who were 6 years old. Durning the treatment they referred to minimal and maximal oppositions and considered major class differences.

The peculiarities of the Turkish language are reflected in their phonological system. The influence on the minimal pairs can be seen in such example: “if a child produces [tεl] for /cεl/ (bare or bald), the target /k/ will be compared with the child’s error sound [t]; and these are minimally apart only in [place] feature distinction of dorsal vs coronal” (Topbas and Ünal 647).

The minimal pair in Turkish can be created on the basis of /p/ and /b/ using the words pil – bil. As it is demanded, the change of a sound differs the meaning of the word (battery – know). This example represents the minimal pair because the sounds differ only in voice. The maximal opposition can be observed with kal – mal. The difference between the meanings (stay – goods) is present as well as the difference in the features between /k/ and /m/ (“sonorant, nasal, voice, anterior, dorsal, high and continuant” (Topbas and Ünal 647)). The difference between the major class features can be seen in minimal opposition pair bal – mal. Sounds /b/ and /m/ change the meaning from honey to goods; moreover, one is obstruent, and another one is sonorant (Topbas and Ünal 647).

The researchers concluded that the effectiveness of the minimal and maximal opposition is similar, and it is hard to claim which one is better if a particular problem is not known. They said that the treatment helped to improve the pronunciation of such sounds as [c] and [ɟ] as well as [ł] and [l].


We can conclude that the phonological contrast therapy is very effective in treating speech disorders. Depending on the issues faced by a child, the clinician can choose the best approach. If one have problems with one or two sounds, it is better to utilize minimal pairs and maximal opposition. The shortest amount of time is needed to help a child who requires the focus on a range of target sounds simultaneously with multiple oppositions. The empty set is the best to improve the knowledge of the system of sounds and the pronunciation of distinct phonemes. The efficacy of the phonological contrast therapy is proved not only for the English-speaking individuals but also for the Turkish ones.

Works Cited

Baker, Elise, and Sharynne McLeod. “Evidence-Based Practice for Children with Speech Sound Disorders: Part 1 Narrative Review”. Speech & Hearing Services in Schools 42.1 (2011): 102-139. Print.

Barlow, Jessica, and Judith Gierut. “Minimal Pair Approaches to Phonological Remediation”. Speech Language Pathology 23.1 (2002): 57-68. Print.

Gierut, Judith. “Complexity in phonological treatment: clinical factors”. Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools 32.4 (2001): 229-241. Print.

Gierut, Judith. “The Conditions and Course of Clinically Induced Phonological Change”. Journal of Speech & Hearing Research 35.5 (1992): 1049-1063. Print.

Topbas, Seyhun, and Özlem Ünal. “An Alternating Treatment Comparison of Minimal and Maximal Opposition Sound Selection in Turkish Phonological Disorders”. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics 24.8 (2010): 646-668. Print.

Williams, Lynn. SCIP – Sound contrasts in phonology: Evidence-based treatment program, Greenville: Super Duper Publications, 2006. Print.

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