My child has trouble saying the /s/ sound (or, When is an articulation disorder not an articulation disorder?)

Occasionally a parent or a teacher will refer a student to me for an articulation disorder. Specifically, the child has trouble saying the /s/ sound, especially at the ends of words.

I sit down with the child and begin listening to him speak, and sure enough, he's completely leaving off the /s/ sound in words like jumps (as in Daddy jumps), and trucks (as in Three trucks), and Mike's (as in Mike's cookie). Not only that, but the child is having the same sort of trouble with the /z/ sound in words like runs (as in Daddy runs), and flags (as in Three flags), and Tammy's (as in Tammy's cookie). Well, that’s not surprising, right? After all, /z/ is articulated just like /s/; the only difference is that /z/ is voiced and /s/ is unvoiced. Open and shut case: diagnose an articulation disorder, write some speech therapy goals targeting correct articulation of /s/ and /z/ in word-final position, give the kid a sticker, and call in the next referral.

Not so fast!

Now, chances are you're not quite the language nerd I am, but if you are, you'll have noticed something that the /s/ and /z/ sounds in the examples above have in common. If not, I'll lay it out for you while whistling the theme from Jeopardy. Here is the list of words I just gave as examples with the missing sound in each word in bold:

/s/; /z/

jumps; runs

trucks; flags

Mike's ; Tammy's

Still haven't figured it out? Okay, I'll give you another clue: in words like fence, pass, toss, maze, close, and lose, the same child produces the /s/ and /z/ sounds perfectly. Why would that be? The answer is that this child does not have an articulation disorder at all; he has a language disorder! What he is omitting is not the /s/ or /z/ sound, but grammatical suffixes.

Jumps is jump plus third person singular –s.

Trucks is truck plus noun plural –s.

Mike’s is Mike plus possessive –'s.

By contrast, fence and maze are not anything plus anything—they're just fence and maze. The fact that third person singular, noun plural, and possessive markers in English are all formed by tacking an /s/ or /z/ to the end of the word is an accident of history, and the child is omitting them, not because they are formed using the /s/ and /z/ sounds, but because they are grammatical suffixes that are commonly omitted by children with language disorders. If we probe further, we may find that the child also leaves off the past tense –ed suffix (pronounced as /t/) on jumped, and occasionally substitutes him for he, and has difficulty producing or understanding passive constructions like The dog is being tickled by the rhino, or forming complex WH-questions like Who is the rhino tickling? I also wouldn’t be surprised to find that he talks less often and in shorter utterances than his peers.

And to think that, just a minute ago, I was ready to start making this poor child practice his "snake sounds" and "busy bee sounds". We would have sat there hissing and buzzing until we were blue in the face, and making no progress. This is an example of why it is so important that the first step in intervention be a thorough and unhurried evaluation by a qualified speech-language pathologist. Without a good evaluation, the intervention program can very easily target the wrong set of goals to improve skills that don't need improving, and ignoring skills that desperately need attention. Being a kid is hard enough without being set up for this kind of failure!

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