All things /s/!

By: Mandy Griffin, MS CCC-SLP

We typically see /s/ emerge around the age three, though kids often use it during play and in babble much earlier than that. The production of /s/ is made using the sides of the tongue to elevate and meet the palate (roof of the mouth). The middle of the tongue is down, making a groove for air to move through. Some kids make /s/ with the middle of the tongue bunched up, with air flows down the sides (think Sid from Ice Age!), this is called a “lateral s.” This type of /s/ is always considered developmentally atypical and you should seek treatment around three years of age if you notice your child exhibit this error. Some kids make /s/ with a forward tongue placement (think Daffy Duck!) when /s/ is made between the teeth, this is called a “frontal s.” This type of /s/ is considered a typical part of development and is observed through the age of three. A “good” /s/ is made by placing the tongue behind the teeth and should be fully developed by the time a child turns four years old.

What causes trouble with /s/?

It is often not possible to determine the exact cause of an articulation impairment, but the cause may be structure related (i.e., a forward jaw/underbite), motor based (i.e., apraxia), or sensory related (i.e., hearing impairment). There are several other factors that impact how a child learns to make /s/, like a family history of speech sound disorders or prolonged oral habits like a pacifier or extended sippy cup use.

How to we fix it?!

The child first needs to discover the sound which we do via auditory bombardment (heavy modeling of the correct production) and discrimination (telling the difference between good and poor productions) tasks. Once the child can hear and discriminate the sound, we start talking about the tongue in order to help the child discover the tip and sides of the tongue. Sometimes we need to work on things like jaw stability or moving the tongue separate from the jaw, before a child can imitate /s/. Once we have all of these things worked out, we can work on shaping the sound. Some children can imitate quickly from a model and for other children we make an /s/ by building it off of other sounds, like making a “long t” (t-t-t-ts-ts-tsss), then eventually omitting the /t/. Once a child can make /s/ by itself we drill and drill until they are consistently successful. Therapist will work through a hierarchy of syllables, words, phrases, sentences, and structured conversation, until the sound emerges within the child’s spontaneous speech. It is important that the child be able to self-monitor, meaning they need know when they are making the sound correctly or incorrectly so they can adjust it accordingly during practice and eventually use the sound correctly during normal conversation.

If you have specific questions or notice that your child demonstrates this type of error, please be sure to consult a Speech Language Pathologist near you.