Helping children to say the speech sound ‘s’

Drawing of Mr Sew the tailorHelping children to say the speech sound ‘s’ and other sounds that they are having difficulty with can take time, especially when other factors such as confidence and self-esteem are involved. Every child is different, and what works with one won’t necessarily work with another! As a speech therapists I always have several options available in my Speech and Language Therapy toolkit – I have never seen a child who has not responded to at least one of these, even if it has taken me time to find the right one. In this post I thought I would open my toolkit and share some of the techniques I use to help children say the speech sound ‘s.’

Why children find it difficult to say the speech sound ‘s’:

  • Some children put their tongue too far forward and say ‘th’ instead of ‘s’ (lisp)
  • Others retract their tongue, which results in a speech sound similar to sh (palatal)
  • Some release the air from the sides of the tongue, instead of down the middle of the tongue, which results in a slushy sound (lateral)
  • Others find it hard to say long speech sounds, e.g. ‘s’, ‘f’, ‘sh,’ and they replace ‘s’ with a short speech sound, such as ‘d’. They say dee instead of sea, yed instead of yes (stopping).

Tips for helping children say the speech sound ‘s’

For children who say ‘th’ instead of ‘s’:

Try the following:

  • Use a mirror to show the child what your mouth looks like when you say s.’ Ask, “Can you see my tongue when I say ‘s?’” (No) Tell them where your tongue is: “My tongue is behind my top teeth. I can lick my top teeth (do this so the child can see). Can you do that?” Give them more information, e.g. “But my tongue is not touching my teeth and it is not touching the top of my mouth. Look what happens if it touches the top of my mouth!” Show the child that if it touches, no sound comes out. “So it is close to the top of my mouth, and close to my teeth but not touching!”
  • Using the mirror, tell the child, “Look! I am going to put my tongue behind my top teeth. Tongue! Go behind my top teeth! Is it there?” then say, “I am going to do a really big smile and then say ‘s.’ You look and tell me if you can see my tongue. Ok, tongue, get ready!” Do a big, big smile and say ‘ssssssss.’ Then ask the child to copy you.
  • Contrast the two sounds ‘th’ and ‘s.’ Ask the child to tell you which one you said, ‘th’ or ‘s’ and then ask them to say ‘s’ or ‘th’ for a toy, or ask an older sibling or family member to listen and say which one you said. This helps raise awareness that ‘s’ and ‘th’ are not the same speech sounds.

For children who release the air from the sides of the tongue: 

  • The most effective method that I have found is to cut about an inch off a straw. If you put the straw very close to the middle of your top teeth and say the speech sound ‘sssss,’ you will get feedback from the straw if the air is coming down the middle of your tongue. This provides feedback for the child that they are, or aren’t, saying the speech sound ‘s’ correctly. If they are releasing the air from the sides of the tongue, they will not hear any feedback from the straw.
  • Listening tasks always help a child as they raise their awareness of the speech sound that they want to say. Say the speech sound ‘s’ for the child, then tell them you are going to say some speech sounds and you want them to say, “Stop!” or to give you a thumbs up when they hear ‘s.’ Say s incorrectly at least four times before you say it accurately, e.g. say ‘th,’ then move your tongue back a little in your mouth and say ‘s’ – you will make a speech sound that sounds more like ‘sh’ than ‘s,’ then say ‘sh,’ then say ‘s’ letting the air out of the sides of your mouth (this is actually quite tricky! You might need to practise!) Then say the speech sound ‘s!’ Repeat this at least three times, saying four incorrect sounds before you say ‘s,’ varying the order that you say the incorrect sounds in so that the child can’t predict when you will say ‘s.’

For children who say short speech sounds instead of long speech sounds, e.g. ‘d’ instead of ‘s’:

  • Show the child how to say ‘s’ as described in the tips for children who say ‘th’ instead of ‘s.’
  • Play listening games with a shaker or bells, e.g. play a long sound (shake the instrument for a while) so the child can hear what it before the game and play a short sound (shake the instrument once). Then play either a long or a short sound and the child has to tell you if it was a long or a short sound. 

For more ideas and tips, see Playing with s, which is a very practical resource with lots of ideas and advice.

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