As children grow older, we expect that their speech will eventually become more mature sounding. Maturity of speech happens in a variety of ways, such as an increase in expressive vocabulary or by expanding the length of spoken sentences. It can also be through the natural remediation of speech errors.

But what happens when children don’t outgrow these misarticulations? While some children will naturally outgrow them on their own, others will require a good amount of practice.

One of the most common misarticulations observed in children’s speech is the /s/ production. Speech errors involving the /s/ sound can make a child’s speech sound less mature, less intelligible, and more difficult to understand.

In this article we will cover some of the basics of /s/ speech errors, when these errors are truly considered to be a speech delay, and some simple tips and activities you can do to help improve your child’s /s/ production at home.

Common Misproductions for the /s/ Sound

Did you know that there are two very common /s/ misproductions? These are referred to as a frontal lisp and a lateral lisp.

In a frontal lisp, a child produces a “th” instead of a true /s/ sound. Their tongue protrudes between their teeth, which is an incorrect placement. Instead of saying the word, “Sing,” they may pronounce the word as, “Thing.”

In a lateral lisp, the /s/ sounds very “slushy.” This is because too much air flows over the sides of the tongue. Airflow has to be streamlined out the front of the mouth in order for the /s/ production to sound 100% accurate.

When Should A Child Be Able To Produce the /s/ Sound Correctly?

It is important to keep in mind that children develop speech articulation skills at different rates. While some children may initially produce /s/ very well, other children may struggle for a more prolonged period of time. Mastery of /s/ production can happen anywhere between 3-8 years old.

If a child turns 8 years old and is still producing /s/ in error, it is then considered to be a clinical developmental delay. However, it is not preferred to wait until a child turns 8 to start working on this production. It is a great idea to begin working on /s/ production when a child turns 5 or 6 years old.

It is important to target /s/ production around this age for a few reasons:

  1. Speech habits become more ingrained overtime. Therefore, the sooner you can change the incorrect productions, the better. It is much easier to “un-do” speech errors sooner rather than later (as long as your child is demonstrating readiness in this skill, of course).
  2. Children are entering school at this time. They become more aware of how their speech sounds in comparison to their peers, which may make them feel more self-conscious.
  3. It is important to make sure that others can easily understand your child’s speech. We want kids to be clear and confident communicators. If people are constantly having to ask, “What did you say?” it can take a toll on a child’s emotions and they may be less inclined to speak proactively.  

Tips to Improve /s/ Production - Where Do I Start?

Here are some helpful, at-home tips and activities you can implement with your child to improve their /s/ productions.

Discriminating Between Correct Vs. Incorrect Productions

In order to help a child produce the /s/ sound accurately, you first have to identify where to begin. The best starting point for practicing any speech sound is always to make sure that your child can accurately identify a correct production vs. an incorrect production. You can do this by modeling the /s/ sound - sometimes saying it correctly, other times incorrectly. Ask your child, “Did I say my /s/ right or wrong?”

Keep tabs on how frequently your child is able to discriminate between correct vs. incorrect productions. Once they are able to do this with 100% accuracy, you are ready to move on.

Teaching Correct Tongue Placement for the /s/ Sound

For correct /s/ productions, the tongue tip should be elevated behind the top teeth. Have your child identify the “bumpy spot” behind their top teeth. This is where the tongue tip should be placed. As your child vocalizes the /s/ sound, the air flow should go over the top of their tongue and out the front of the mouth. This is what gives the airflow that nice, smooth, streamlined sound.

One helpful technique is to have your child practice their /s/ sounds while standing in front of a mirror. This provides immediate visual feedback to help your child better determine if their tongue and mouth are in the correct position.

Start At The Right Level of Complexity

You may not realize that in order to improve your child’s /s/ production in everyday speech, you first have to start practicing in very structured contexts. What this means is that you will first help your child produce /s/ in isolation (just the “ssss” sound by itself) before jumping into words or even /s/ production in sentences. See below for the typical progression of complexity levels speech-language pathologists typically follow.

You can also click each link to see additional tips and exercises to practice each complexity level available for free at Expressable Academy:

Speech-language pathologists will also target /s/ production based on word position:

  • Initial word position (as in sun)
  • Medial word position (as in messy)
  • Final word position (as in bus)

This can all seem pretty tedious. And the truth is very tedious! However, we can’t expect a child to practice the /s/ sound a few times and then just start producing it correctly in day-to-day conversations. Helping your child improve their articulation in this very structured way will pay off in the long run. Slow and steady wins the race.

When a child is able to gain foundational articulation skills in simple contexts, they will be ready and prepared for each subsequent level.

Resources For Home

If you need some specific lessons to help your child practice at home, I highly recommend you check out Expressable Academy. Navigate over to the left hand column and make your way down to the section titled: Articulation- S. There are tons of free lessons you can access for home practice with your child. The lessons are even broken down by word position and complexity level!

What To Do If Progress Isn’t Happening

If you find that your child is still struggling with /s/ production, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Expressable. We have an amazing team of highly trained speech-language pathologists ready to evaluate and treat your child’s speech, and make any appropriate recommendations.