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Mastering the S and Z Sounds: Strategies for Improved Pronunciation in Speech Therapy

Despite being separated by several letters in the alphabet, S and Z sounds are mechanically quite alike. They can also be relatively challenging sounds to produce, especially for children whose speech skills are still developing. Challenges with S and Z enunciation can arise for many reasons. The difficulties may present as other sound substitutions or a lisp. By the ages of 5 to 8, the majority of children are proficient in the production of the Z and S sounds. If problems with these sounds persist beyond that point, speech therapy will likely be required to address the issue.

The right therapeutic approach for your child can help them become proficient in the production of S and Z sounds while also reducing articulation errors, with the goal of producing typical-sounding speech.

If you think your child might benefit from speech therapy, don’t wait to reach out. Get started by scheduling your free introductory call today!

What is the Speech Difficulty with Pronouncing S and Z?

There are a variety of reasons that your child may have trouble making these sounds. These speech errors typically occur due to mechanical reasons that speech therapists refer to as articulation errors. In these cases, the child is likely placing their tongue in the wrong place, and instead of producing a clean “s” sound, they make an alternative substitute sound.

The exact underlying cause of these articulation errors varies from child to child. However, research has uncovered some common threads. For example, the behaviors listed below have been shown to increase the risk of developing articulation errors:

Significant Sippy Cup Use: The spout of the majority of sippy cups encourages the tongue to move forward (known as tongue thrust or lingual protrusion) to drink the liquid out of the cup. For the process of speech, the tongue is required to move towards the back of the mouth (or posteriorly).

Excessive or Extended Pacifier Use: Many babies and young children find comfort in their pacifier. However, excessive or extended pacifier use can prevent the child from practicing certain speech sounds and tongue movements that are required for speech production. Often, children will try to speak with their pacifier in their mouth. In this case, the tongue is forced to accommodate the shape of the pacifier, forcing the tongue and brain to learn unnatural movements. These compensating movements often hinder the essential lingual movement required for speech sound production.

Prolonged Thumb Sucking: Children suck their thumbs for many reasons, most commonly for self-soothing. Thumb sucking can have the same effect on speech development as pacifier use. In addition, thumb sucking can affect the integrity of the oral cavity, which can make sound production (and its remediation) even more complicated.

Whatever the cause may be, parents and children alike need to know that effective treatment is available and is designed to help your child clearly articulate these sounds.

What is the Difference Between S and Z in Speech Therapy?

The Z and S sounds are produced in a similar way, placing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth or tucking it below the ridge of the lower gum line and gently blowing air will produce an S sound. When we do the same thing but activate the vibration of your vocal cords, you produce a Z sound. (Give it a try!)

How do you Teach S and Z Sounds in Speech Therapy?

The speech and language pathologist will work with each child to encourage and establish accurate and effective tongue placement. The process of learning correct sound production begins with baby steps. For example, the child may be asked to:

Place their teeth together
Make a big smile
Move their tongue back
Slow their breathing, especially exhalation

In the case of Z sounds, the child may also be asked to activate their larynx.

The speech and language pathologist will next work with the child at the syllable level (for example, the “see,” “say,” and “saw” syllables). Once the child is comfortable producing these syllables, the therapy sessions will move on to words and phrases.

The final step is to help the child spontaneously produce correct sounds over time. Learning how to correctly produce the S and Z sounds during spontaneous speech can take anywhere between six and nine months, though it is important to remember that every child is different. If your child is struggling to make S and Z sounds, you should consult with a speech and language pathologist about what a treatment plan might look like. Getting started is as easy as scheduling your free introductory call today!

How Can I Help My Child with S and Z Sounds at Home?

Apart from encouraging them in their speech therapy appointments and continuing to communicate with your child, there are a few other things you can do at home.

Play Games – If your child is able to accurately produce the S and Z sounds in isolation, it can be fun to play games with the sound. One popular game is known as “Sam the Snake” in which the adult takes on the role of Sam and ssssslithers around the house, finding and eating anything that begins with the letter ‘s.’

Pay Attention to Verbal Cues – It can be helpful to pay attention to your own enunciations and verbal cues. Be sure to properly and clearly enunciate when you speak to your child, and in some cases, it can be helpful to exaggerate the sounds that are difficult and model proper tongue placement.

Be Supportive – Above all, the most important thing you can do is provide your child with ample opportunities to practice their speech sounds in a supportive and encouraging environment. If your child’s speech therapist has provided exercises to practice at home, provide positive support and help to your child as they work on those.

“S” and “Z” sounds are fundamental to speech and language production, and speech therapy is the best resource for a child who may be struggling. Don’t wait for your child to fall behind, get started with speech therapy by scheduling your free introductory call today!