A Remarkable Method to Lift the Front-Tongue (for ALL Front-Tongue Sounds)


Do you want to know how to lift and move for a good /s/?  Here’s the answer:  Contract the mid-tongue.  Mid-tongue contraction (a tongue bowl) lifts the front-tongue.  There’s a little more to it, but basically that’s what we need to do with our kids.

I’ve known how to get the front-tongue to lift for front-tongue speech sounds for over 30 years.  It’s about the mechanics of the tongue muscles; specifically, how the mid-tongue contracts and stabilizes internally to elevate the front-tongue.  

It’s essential in speech production but one that’s frequently overlooked in our field. 

I learned about front-tongue elevation from an article shared with me by a physiologist friend and professor.  This was back in the ‘80’s when the article was brand new.  It was big news at that time and apparently made quite a splash in the physiology field.

It’s an article by Kier and Smith (1985), called “Tongues, tentacles and trunks: the biomechanics of movement in muscular-hydrostats.”  A real page-turner; but real important.

Many of our speech-kid’s tongues’ move horizontally when they speak.  Would you agree? 

Their tongue’s move on the horizontal plane, mid-mouth, as they produce their stops, substitutions and syllable reductions, culminating into lisps and interdental /t/s, /d/s, /s/s, /l/s, etc., etc.  They lack front-tongue vertical movement, i.e., elevation.  Say the following out loud and notice your front-tongue:  /t/, /d/, /n/, /s/, /z/, /q/, /Q/, +, and -, and curling, /l/ and retroflex /r/). 

Lingual consonants are vertical (even the back ones); except for the voiced and unvoiced “th’s.”  They’re horizontal.

Kier and Smith tell us that the tongue is similar to an elephant’s truck and an octopus’ arms; they refer to them as muscular hydrostats.  None, including the human tongue, have a skeleton.  There are no bones, and obviously no joints.  So how do they move?

Here’s how the tongue moves:  When the mid-tongue contracts, the mid-muscles shorten, and the front-tongue lifts.  The greater the mid-tongue contraction, the greater the lift. 

For example, a /t/ requires a small amount of front-tongue elevation, therefore, requires a small amount of mid-tongue contraction.  An /l/ and retroflex /r/ require more front-tongue lifting, therefore they require a greater amount of mid-tongue contraction.  The in-between lingual consonants elevate and contract accordingly.

Here’s How:

With a tongue depressor, tap-tap-tap the mid-tongue to generate contraction.  Do so multiple times, with moderate pressure.  Make sure the tongue is inside their mouth. 

When they tighten the mid-tongue the tongue “bowls.”  Go for a pretty big bowl (lots of contraction) at first; generate it several times.  Look in the mirror; see it, do it.  Have them close their eyes; focus and feel and replicate it.  Over a matter of time—days to a couple weeks—have them develop mid-tongue contraction capability. 

Then, begin to shape tongue-bowl control, i.e., tongue-bowl gradients.  Spray water (3 to 4 sprays) into their “big” tongue bowl; hold-the-bowl, look, feel, swallow.  Spray a little less water (2 to 3 sprays) for a “medium” sized tongue bowl (same thing), then spray one spray to generate a controlled small, refined tongue bowl.  Turn their attention to how the front-tongue moves when their mid-tongue tightens.  Take your time.  Build-in the capability.

There is nothing magical about this, nor is it a reflex.  Nor, should you expect to stimulate an immediate good speech sound just because you tapped the mid-tongue. 

What you are doing is applying a tactile indicator to the mid-tongue to get deliberate, consistent, contraction for front-tongue lifting that you can eventually shape into viable speech sounds.

When shaping, start with /t/.  Be sure the tongue is up within the dental arch and the tongue-sides are anchored on the top, side teeth; that’s the tongue’s external stabilization.

There are a few variables I haven’t mentioned, and one of them is tongue tone. In most cases, ‘adequate’ tonicity is required to generate tongue-bowl gradients.  Therefore, if you have a child with a visibly flaccid tongue, you may have difficulty facilitating a useful tongue-bowl.  (Toning may be in order; we’ll cover that in a separate Therapy Matters.)  In the meantime…. 

Go for it!  Generate and establish a good “tongue bowl” with one or more of your kids.  In a few weeks, let me know how it’s going!

Enjoy your week! 

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  • Charlotte Boshart
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