Speech Sound Disorders en Español: Three Key Questions You Want Answered

Blog #11 in the Phonology Means Nothing and Other Astounding and Very Practical Facts about Speech Sound Disorders Blog Series

For more information about this series, see the Phonology Means Nothing Series welcome page

By Lindsey R. Squires, PhD, CCC-SLP
December 17, 2020

Suppose you find yourself working with Spanish-English bilingual children who have SSDs. Perhaps you already have some familiarity with differences in phonology, but you want a brief summary for goals and treatment. Here are three key questions you’ll be happy to have answered:

●      Which sounds are late-developing in Spanish?

●      What is the research base for treatment of late sounds en español in bilingual children?

●      How do you select a treatment sound for a Spanish-English bilingual child?

1. Which Sounds are Late-Developing in Spanish?

As in English, children acquire certain Spanish sounds later than other sounds (Carballo & Mendoza, 2000; Fabiano-Smith & Goldstein, 2010). The most frequent later-developing sounds in Spanish are [s, r, ɾ, l]. The sounds [s] and [l] both occur in Spanish and English. However, tap [ɾ] and trill [r] are not present in English. Tap [ɾ] is made with a quick touch to the alveolar ridge (e.g., “pero” = but). It sounds similar to the flap in English (/bʌɾɚ/ for butter) (Morrow et al., 2014). Trill [r] is made when the tongue vibrates against the alveolar ridge (e.g., “perro” = dog). It sounds similar to a bilabial trill like a raspberry or a motor boat sound, but this vibrant sound takes place at the alveolar ridge, not the lips.

Additional sounds may also present a challenge, in part reflecting dialectal or regional influences. Most research studies highlight children who speak a Mexican dialect of Spanish (Acevedo, 1993; Jiménez, 1987; Taveras, Namazi, Pazuelo, & Casado, 2015).

2. What is the Research Base for Treatment of Late Sounds en Español in Bilingual Children?

In general, treatment of SSDs in bilingual children lags behind that of monolingual children both in its evidence base and in practitioners’ clinical competence (Verdon, McLeod, & Wong, 2015; Williams & McLeod, 2012). From 1994 to 2015, only 6 peer-reviewed published studies appeared on treatment for multilingual children with SSDs, compared to 130 studies with English monolingual children (Baker & McLeod, 2011). These multilingual treatment studies actually included children speaking a variety of languages, including French, Cantonese, Punjabi, Gujarati, Hindi, and Spanish. While five of these six studies provided therapy with English-only interventions, only one study incorporated both languages in treatment (Spanish-English; Gildersleeve-Neumann & Goldstein, 2015).

The six treatment approaches described in these studies are all familiar to clinicians who treat English-speaking students. They include:

1. Traditional articulation

2. Minimal pairs

3. Core vocabulary

4. Perceptual and metalinguistic (e.g., auditory discrimination)

5. Cueing for motor plan (for childhood apraxia of speech)

6. Home practice

3. How Do You Select a Treatment Sound for a Spanish-English Bilingual Child?

If a disorder is determined, how do we choose specific sounds to target? Selection of possible treatment sounds for late sounds divide into three categories: (1) treatment of sounds found in both English and Spanish, (2) treatment of sounds unique to Spanish, and (3) treatment of sounds unique to English. Based on Yavaş and Goldstein (1998), recommendations are to treat sounds in error that exist in both languages, then target sounds unique to Spanish or unique to English (Perez, 1994 as cited in Yavaş & Goldstein, 1998). Described above, the [s] and [l] are late sounds found in both English and Spanish, tap [ɾ] and trill [r] are late sounds unique to Spanish, and SH, Z, V, and English-R are late sounds unique to English. Sounds in the first two groups are candidates for treatment. Keep in mind, a child with difficulty in pronunciation of Spanish trill [r] and/or tap [ɾ] may also have difficulty with the English [ɹ] and, in that case, may qualify for therapy to remediate speech productions.

What about sounds in the third group, which occur in English but not in Spanish? These sounds do not exist in the child’s home language and result in a speech difference but not disorder. Therefore, a Spanish-speaking student with only these sound errors would not typically qualify for speech services (Yavaş & Goldstein, 1998).


Acevedo, M. A. (1993). Development of Spanish consonants in preschool children. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 15(2), 9–15. https://doi.org/10.1177/152574019301500202

Baker, E., & McLeod, S. (2011). Evidence-based practice for children with SSDs: Part 1 narrative review. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 42(2), 102–139. https://doi.org/10.1044/0161-1461(2010/09-0075)

Fabiano-Smith, L., & Goldstein, B. (2010). Early-, middle-, and late-developing sounds in monolingual and bilingual children: An exploratory investigation. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 19, 66–77. https://doi.org/10.1044/1058-0360(2009/08-0036)    

Gildersleeve-Neumann, C., & Goldstein, B. (2015). Cross-linguistic generalization in the treatment of two sequential Spanish-English bilingual children with speech sound disorders. International Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 17(1), 26–40. https://doi.org/10.3109/17549507.2014.898093  

Jiménez, B. C. (1987). Acquisition of Spanish consonants in children aged 3–5 years, 7 months. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 18, 357–363. https://doi.org/10.1044/0161-1461.1804.357

Perez, E. (1994). Phonological differences among speakers of Spanish-influenced English. In J. Bernthal & N. Bankson (Eds.), Child phonology: Characteristics, assessment, and intervention with special populations (pp. 245–254). Thieme Medical.

Taveras, M., Namazi, M., Pazuelo, L., & Casado, L. (2015). Phonological patterns in Dominican Spanish-English bilingual preschoolers: Implications for assessment. SIG 16 Perspectives on School-Based Issues, 16(3), 87–98. https://doi.org/10.1044/sbi16.3.62

Verdon, S., McLeod, S., & Wong, S. (2015). Reconceptualizing practice with multilingual children with speech sound disorders: People, practicalities and policy. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 50(1), 48–62. https://doi.org/10.1111/1460-6984.12112

Williams, C. J., & McLeod, S. (2012). Speech-language pathologists’ assessment and intervention practices with multilingual children. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 14(3), 292–305. http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/17549507.2011.636071

Yavaş, M., & Goldstein, B. (1998). Phonological assessment and treatment of bilingual speakers. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 7, 49–60. https://doi.org/10.1044/1058-0360.0702.49