In this post, we'll...
- learn more about how the /s/ sound is produced
- what causes /s/ pronunciation problems, and
- explore tips and strategies for working on the /s/ sound together with your child
How is the /s/ Sound Produced?
The letters such as C or S often indicates an /s/ sound. It’s also used in the English language as well as a number of other languages you may speak at home.
The first and most common way to create this sound is the tongue tip up position.
Here, the tip of the tongue should barely touch the bumpy part behind the top front teeth, and the sides of the tongue should be raised high enough to touch the insides of the top back molars. This creates a “bowl” in the center of the tongue, which directs the airflow.
While smiling, slowly blow air over the tongue, making sure the air doesn’t come out of its sides. The hissing sound that comes out is continuous, which means you should be able to produce it for a few seconds with even and smooth pronunciation for the entire duration.
The second position, tongue tip down, is for people who can make a better /s/ sound with their tongue tip pointed down slightly touching the back of the bottom front teeth.
Note that the /s/ sound is also unvoiced, meaning that you don’t use your vocal cords when you produce it. You can see for yourself and touch your throat: you’ll feel no vibrations when you make this sound.
When Do Kids Start to Make Proper S Sounds?
Unlike other articulation sounds like /b/ or /p/, most children learn to say the /s/ sound correctly much later. It’s usually learned around 4 years old, but some kids may take a little longer to get the hang of it. According to the Goldman Fristoe Test of Articulation 2, they should be able to say the first /s/ sound correctly at 5 years old.
Don’t worry if your child hasn’t mastered this sound yet – everyone develops at their own pace! However, if your child is still having trouble making the sound when they’re 8 years old, it’s a good idea to talk to a speech therapist.
What Causes S Sound Problems?
Problems with the /s/ sound are common speech errors that many children experience. There are a few different reasons why this sound can be challenging to learn.
First, children may exhibit issues as part of their phonological processes. Some examples include:
- stopping their airflow resulting in substituted sounds like /t/ or /d/ (“tame” instead of “same”)
- deleting the first consonant (“eel” instead of “seal”)
- removing letters from clusters of consonant sounds (“nail” instead of “snail”)
The second possible cause for /s/ sound problems are physical, like lisps. There are different kids of lisp that may affect sound production:
1) A lateral lisp or distortion results in a slushy sound since the airflow passes through the sides of the mouth.
2) A frontal lisp may produce a /th/ sound instead of an /s/ sound, a result of putting the tongue between the teeth.
Other physical factors may also affect speech like children missing their front teeth, or other oral concerns.
In some cases, it might be hard to determine if it’s a more serious articulation disorder. If you’re not sure about what’s causing the challenges, especially at a later age than 4 years old, you can have your child assessed to find out what to do next.
Different Positions and Sounds of S (+ Word List!)
One of the ways you can help improve their /s/ sound production is by targeting their position within words. The /s/ sound can be at the beginning, middle, or end of a word, and by focusing on each position, people can speak more clearly and confidently. Here’s more information with some word examples.
Initial Position /s/ Words
These words that have the /s/ sound as the initial sound:
These words have the /s/ sound in the middle:
Here are examples where the target /s/ sound is at the end of the word:
Word lists (like the one above) are often made available to aid in making learning more effective and fun. You can also choose words that may be related to your child’s favorite activities, characters, and interests.
Speech-Language Pathologist can help you come up with customized word lists for your child, as well as accompanying fun activities.
Different Milestones of Progress
Knowing what your child is specifically struggling with is important when trying to master a new sound. So it’s important to know at what level your child’s pronunciation is at.
Whenever there’s an articulation or pronunciation issue, speech therapists conduct an evaluation that determines the level they can work at. Based on the milestones set, this will help them create a plan that’s more customized to your child’s exact needs.
Here are some basic levels of progress that your child may go through to master the /s/ sound:
1) Isolation Level – just producing the sound itself (“sss”)
2) Syllable Level – understanding specific syllables (“sa”, “so”, “si”)
3) Word Level – using words with the target sound (“saw”). This may progress to more and more syllables, and as explained earlier, different sound positions.
4) Sentence Level – using the /s/ sound words in a sentence. (“I drank a glass of sweet apple juice.”)
At home, you can approximately tell if your child can move on with the next level. If they produce the sound accurately 80% of the time, you’re good to go. With a speech-language pathologist helping out, you can have a clearer picture of their progress.
Activities and Techniques for Practicing the /s/ Sound
You can start with a few ways to help your child practice the /s/ sound at home. Of course, not all tips may be applicable for your child. contacting an SLP is the best way to get specific and tailored techniques.
1) Label the S Sound Differently
Kids may find it fun to rename the /s/ sound with a different name, like “slithering snake”. You can try out different names and see which one your child likes best.
When children with a lisp hear the usual instruction to “say their /s/ sound”, their mouth and tongue often repeat the same mistake. Renaming the sound tricks their mind into forming a new and correct motor pattern, making it easier to make the intended sound.
2) Do It Like a “Ssssnake”
Much like learning other animal sounds, repetition and lengthening can help them practice. Hissing or talking like a snake with them can help them get used to the correct production of /s/.
This method will help them practice the continuous airflow required to produce the “sssss” sound.
Making sure that your child’s making progress is important, and correcting their errors is a part of that. Giving constructive feedback starts at a young age.
When correcting a child’s pronunciation, you should be specific and give examples of their errors, such as “Oops, you left off the snake sound. You said “tee” instead of “tease”.”
When the sound is produced correctly, the parent can provide positive feedback, such as “I heard your /s/ sound in the word ‘star’, good job!”
Don’t forget to encourage and be patient! Helping your child with articulation practice will pay off in their lifetime.
3) Set an Example
Your child loves to follow what you do, so use it to your advantage and practice modelling.Have them watch closely as you say the sound slowly with your mouth, with your tongue staying down and your air continuing to flow.
When you say a word with the /s/ sound, and make sure to stretch out the sound if your child is leaving it off. Encourage them to listen closely to the sound and try to repeat it.
When they make an incorrect sound, try to replicate it, then make the /s/ sound the correct way and explain the difference in tongue positioning.
4) Get Some Tactile Aids (Spoons, Straws, etc.)
Some tools may help explain how airflow and positioning words. You can hold a straw up to your front teeth and feel the airflow.
If it’s flowing at the end of the straw, that’s the correct position. If it’s the wrong way, it will flow at the sides of your tongue. You can have your child observe try it out as well.
Another effective way is using a small spoon and placing it on their tongue. See if they can produce the /s/ sound this way, as it will help them create a “bowl” in their tongue that directs the airflow.
5) Practice with /t/ First
Starting with a simpler sound that they already know may also help. Have your child watch your mouth as you make the /s/ sound. Then, ask them to make a /t/ sound.
Repeat /t/ a few times with them, then extend the sound and add airflow. This should help produce a “ttttttttssssss” transformation to an /s/ sound.
When they get used to this exercise you can introduce words that have /t/ and /s/ together (like “cats”). Eventually you can remove the /t/ sound with enough practice.
6) Using the Sounds in Everyday Sentences
The practical way to practice is, of course, using /s/ words everyday.
Ask them about their interests to encourage them to use the sound. You can also ask them to describe what they “see” or ask what characters “said”, prompting them to both listen and repeat the sound in their own way.
7) Using Minimal Pairs
Minimal pairs are pairs of words that have only one sound that’s different between them. For example, the word “sight” and “kite” only has their initial letters different (/s/ and /k/), despite the spelling difference. “Soap” and “rope” is another example (/s/ and /r/).
Using these pairs will help them focus on the differing sounds and produce them more accurately. Using cards with the two words can help with regular practice too.
Working on speech sounds can be a long process, but it’s important to help your child improve their articulation and pronunciation, especially for target sounds like /s/.
Think of it like exercising: we begin by teaching the sound, then practice it in isolation, then syllables, then words, and eventually at the sentence and conversational level.
Short, frequent practice sessions are also more effective than longer, infrequent sessions. Try to fit in a few 5-minute sessions throughout the week, even while doing other activities at home. The more you practice, the faster your child will improve.
Looking for a more tailored program for your child? Do they have other pronunciation issues? Reach out to our team and let’s look at how we can help them grow together.