Even though they’re separated by a few letters of the alphabet, S and Z sounds are mechanically quite similar. They’re also relatively challenging, especially for children who are still developing speech skills. Difficulties with S and Z enunciation can develop for a wide variety of reasons. The problems may present as a lisp or as other sound substitutions. Most kids are proficient in the production of the Z and S sounds by the ages of 5-8; if problems persist past that point, speech therapy may become necessary to address the issue.

The right therapeutic approach can help your child become proficient in S and Z sound production and reduce articulation errors–leading to more typical sounding speech.

Why Might S and Z Sound Difficulties Develop?

Your child may have trouble making these sounds for a wide variety of reasons. The speech errors typically occur for mechanical reasons that speech language pathologists refer to as articulation errors. In these cases, your kiddo is placing their tongue in the wrong spot, and instead of making a clean “s” sound, they make a different, substitute sound.

The precise cause underlying these articulation errors will change from child to child. However, researchers have discovered some common threads. For example, the following behaviors have been shown to increase a child’s risk of developing these articulation errors:

  • Significant use of a sippy cup: The spout of most sippy cups encourages the tongue to come forward (lingual protrusion) – encouraging the tongue to move forward to “suck” the liquid out of the cup. For eating/drinking and speech, the tongue needs to move towards the back of the mouth (posteriorly). 
  • Excessive pacifier use: Many children learn to find comfort in their pacifier at a young age. However, excessive pacifier use can keep the child from practicing speech sounds and tongue movements needed for speech and feeding. Oftentimes, children will attempt to speak with their pacifier in their mouth. The tongue then needs to learn compensatory movements to accommodate the nipple of the pacifier. These compensatory movements can hinder the necessary lingual movement needed for accurate speech sound production.
  • Thumb sucking: Children will suck their thumbs for a wide variety of reasons, including self soothing. Thumb sucking can have the same impact as pacifier use. In addition, thumb sucking can impact the integrity of the oral cavity, making sound production and it’s remediation even more complicated.

Whatever the cause, it’s important for parents and children alike to know that there are effective treatments designed to help your child articulate these sounds more clearly. 

What Speech Therapy for S and Z Sounds Looks Like

The S and Z sounds are produced in a very similar way. You put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth or tuck it below the ridge of your lower gum line and gently blow air. That’s an S sound. When you do the same thing but activate your vocal cords, you make a Z sound. (Try it!)

Your speech language pathologist will work with your child to maintain accurate and effective tongue placement. Learning correct production begins with incremental steps. For example, your child may be directed to:

  • Place their teeth together
  • Move their tongue back
  • Make a big smile
  • Slow their airstream

In the case of Z sounds, your kiddo may also be asked to activate the larynx. (You can try this at home, too!)

Your speech language pathologist will then work with your child at the syllable level (for example, the “see,” “saw,” “say” syllables). Once your child is comfortable with these syllables, the program moves into words and phrases.

The last step is to help your child make spontaneous correct sounds over time. Learning how to effectively produce the S and Z sounds in spontaneous speech takes somewhere between six and nine months, though every child is different. If your child is having difficulties making S and Z sounds, you should talk to a speech language pathologist about what their program might look like.

What Can I Do at Home?

Once you are able to assist your child in accurately producing the S and Z sounds (see suggestions above), it is often fun to play games with the sound. If your child is not yet successful in producing the target sound, remain at that level until you achieve success. The child needs to be successful in the sound production, otherwise you are only reinforcing the practicing of an incorrect sound production by moving onto further steps. One of the most popular is something called “Sam the Snake,” a fun game designed to expose your child to S-sounds. }

You, as the parent, assume the personality of Sam (making sure to slither your arms and extend all of your own S sounds as you sssslither around, of course). In most versions of this game, Sam travels around the house, “eating” whatever starts with an S.

Outside of Sam the Snake, parents can also try to pay attention to their own verbal cues and enunciations. But truly the most important thing that parents can do is provide their child with a supportive environment. If your speech language pathologist gives your child “homework,” do your best to provide positive help and support during that homework. 

Additionally, parents can be supportive by ensuring children can regularly attend speech therapy appointments.

S and Z are Fundamental to Speech

The S sound is incredibly common in speech. And while Z is somewhat less frequently used, it’s no less important. Correcting your child’s Z and S pronunciation can help them say thousands of words more clearly, improving speech and communication in significant ways.

That’s why speech therapy for S and Z sounds is critical. You can try some of these activities on your own–telling your child where to place their tongue, smiling, and making the S sound. If you have difficulties, you can call to discuss what your speech therapy options are and how a speech language pathologist might help!