The Illusive Lateral S

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I can relate! The lateral /s/ is one of the most frustrating problems a speech therapist faces. But after investigating, analyzing, and trying dozens of techniques, I’ve finally landed on a few possible answers you might find helpful:

  • In /s/, placement is everything! Airflow will take care of itself as long as the placement is correct. Identifying exactly what placement is needed to produce a correct /s/ gives key clues to remediating the incorrect one.
  • The /s/ production (along with many other sounds) is all about “stabilization” and “mobilization.” In therapy, if we can get the right mouth parts to stabilize (hold still) and mobilize (move), and do it consistently, we’re home-free.

If you’re not familiar with this about /s/, you may want to check out your own lingual placement. Do your /s/ and notice the sides of your tongue. You probably have side lingua-dental contact.  

Therefore, in the desirable /s/, the sides of the tongue anchor to the insides of the top, back teeth (referred to as “lateral margin stabilization”). Contact can be full side-tongue to side-teeth, or just cusp contact. This placement-piece is critical. It not only centers the tongue in the right location, blocks any lateral airflow and channels it centrally, but it anchors and supports the tongue so that the front-tongue can mobilize with control.

Therapy: Ask the child to open his/her mouth and keep the tongue in. With a child-size tongue depressor (looks like a craft stick, but isn’t), stroke the left side of the tongue from back to front, then go up to the left, top side teeth and gum line and stroke there, back to front.  Do the same on the right side. Remove the tongue depressor and ask the child to lift and match the sides of tongue to the top side-teeth. Sometimes it helps if the child closes his/her eyes during this process to fully focus and feel the side locations. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Focus, feel, find it—and hold it.

That’s the “stabilization” piece. So now what about the “mobilization” piece? The front-tongue typically moves into place, sustains that posture while air moves between the front-surface of the tongue and alveolar ridge, and then out through the approximated, closely positioned, top and bottom front teeth.  This “anterior dental approximation” provides the fricative space to generate the “hiss” in a “hissy” /s/. (If you are wondering about the tongue-tip up and tongue-tip down /s/, we’ll cover that in Part 2.)

It’s crucial to remember that the front-tongue doesn’t necessarily move the front-tongue. The mid-tongue does! Contraction of the mid-tongue into a “tongue bowl” (actually, a tongue saucer) elevates and moves the front-tongue vertically. This mid-tongue contraction piece is oh-so important: without mid-tongue contraction, there’s no front-tongue movement. Along with the lateral margin stabilization, mid-tongue contraction stabilizes the front-tongue, holding it in place while air moves.

Therapy: To generate mid-tongue contraction, grab a child-size tongue depressor, ask the child to open his/her mouth, and keep the tongue inside. Once again, ask them to focus and feel, this time on their mid-tongue, as you tap on the mid-tongue surface with the tongue depressor. The goal is to contract the muscles of the mid-tongue, and in so doing, the mid-tongue lowers and the sides and front scoop up. Help them to do it, repeatedly, and to become aware of their mid-tongue tension. Along with the lateral margin stabilization, you will eventually be using this piece to help them maneuver their front-tongue into a good /s/ position.

This is the first of a three-part series on the lateral /s/. I would love to hear your comments and most of all your therapy suggestions on the illusive lateral /s/! Please feel free to join the discussion below, or you may contact me privately at char@charboshart.com. Thanks for reading!

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  • Charlotte Boshart
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