Learning speech is a complex process. Even though the human brain is predisposed to learning patterns of language, sometimes our brains make their own rules for how language should be spoken, especially if a sound is hard to produce.
These are called speech errors, and they are more common than you’d think. Leaving off an /s/ sound in consonant clusters is called cluster reduction, and it is a phonological error that a speech-language pathologist can help correct in speech therapy.
Read on to learn about the treatment for cluster reduction for /s/ in speech therapy, and how you can help your child work on this skill at home.
What Is A Cluster Reduction?
All languages have rules for how sounds are combined, this speech sound science is called phonology. Our brains are wired to learn the order and patterns of speech rules, which is how a baby goes from not knowing a language to eventually learning how to speak.
When a child is learning to speak, sometimes these sound combinations can be difficult to create so many children will say adorable mispronunciations of words. These are called phonological errors.
These mispronunciations may end up becoming rules in the child’s brain for the articulation of certain sounds. Cluster reductions are speech errors where a child condenses multiple consonants into a single consonant sound through omission.
A phoneme is the smallest unit of a word that distinguishes it from another. Common phonological errors include fronting (replacing one sound for another at the beginning of a word. (e.g. tea for key), final consonant deletion (e.g. dah for dog), and cluster reduction.
A common type of cluster reduction is when a child drops an /s/ sound. For example, a child may say “top” instead of “stop,” leaving the “s” off in the consonant cluster. A cluster reduction may also affect other word sounds.
As a child ages, these mispronunciations can become less adorable and more problematic. Other children at school or in the community may make fun of a child for these phoneme errors. The errors may also lead to misunderstandings and difficulty in school.
Is Cluster Reduction Normal?
Most children go through this phonological process at some point during their language development, usually between 2-3 years of age. These issues typically resolve on their own by the time a child is about 5 years old, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
Children may also have cluster reduction without the /s/ sound, which usually resolves itself by age 4.
If your child is still leaving off the /s/ sound in words past this age, or your child’s speech is unintelligible to others, you should seek out the help of a speech-language pathologist (SLP). Your child may have a phonological disorder.
An SLP can evaluate your child and determine if there are any speech delays. Then, they can suggest a treatment plan that will likely involve speech therapy to improve your child’s speech intelligibility.
How Do Speech Pathologists Treat Cluster Reductions for S?
There are various speech therapy activities that a speech-sound therapist may use to target consonant cluster reduction for /s/. Your child’s SLP may try some of these exercises or others to teach your child to say the /s/ sound. They will work to build these skills while speech therapy is in session, but they may also ask that a caregiver practice these techniques at home.
Caregivers can use these therapy techniques while practicing at home or in between speech therapy sessions to provide a carryover of skills from your child’s last session. Many of these strategies are easy and focus on target words and sounds. They require little or no prep and can be used for young children to correct their error patterns.
There are also many freebie worksheets that you can find online and print to practice sound patterns at home with school-aged children. Here are some common techniques that SLPs use to correct cluster reduction for /s/in speech therapy:
#1 Minimal Pairs
For this exercise, a speech therapist will target some /s/ blends by using pairs of words that only vary in one sound. An /s/ blend is a combination of sounds that go with the /s/ sound in a word.
A list of /s/ blends that an SLP may target includes the following:
You can complete this activity by using matching cards where a child has to say the blend and match the correct blends. Or, you could use concentration games where a child has to pay close attention to the target sound because just one slight variance can change the word.
An example of minimal pairs is the word pair: ship and sheep. These two words sound the same except for one sound. If you say that one sound incorrectly, the meaning changes greatly. Oftentimes, language learners will use minimal pairs to help refine learning English as a second language.
There are many minimal pair word lists you can find online to use and practice with your child at home. There are also several online games you could use with your child to help them practice this skill.
#2 Targeting One Blend Group At A Time
Another way a speech therapist may tackle treating a cluster reduction for /s/ is by focusing on a target blend. They can introduce this by using imagery. For example, with the -sl blend, many common words change once you add a /s/ sound to the beginning. (e.g. lip, leap, leave, lamb, led, and lime).
The child should look at images that represent these words and then say those words. Then, have the child practice saying the /s/ sound alone. Now, the child should emphasize the /s /sound, and say the word that changes together to hear what word this makes. For example, s+ lip= slip. You can use images to represent this and coach the child through the activity.
This method breaks down the sound so children develop phonological awareness of what they are saying. Soon they will be able to catch these error patterns and correct production of the /s/ sound in these blends. Once they master one /s/ blend, they can begin to work on another.
#3 Use Imagery for a Helper Sound
Imagery is a very powerful tool for teaching children how to recognize and differentiate the sounds they make when speaking. SLPs may use some sort of imagery to help a child think about the way they say words. They could use a “helper sound,” which is a way to get a child to add the /s/ sound to words.
For example, they may use the image of a tow truck. When a child leaves off an /s/ sound, the prompter may say that the word is stuck and needs a tow. So, the child will make the /s/ sound to imitate the tow truck pulling out the stuck word. Then, they can say the word with the omitted /s/ sound correctly. So, the exchange ends up similar to this:
Prompter: The /s/ is stuck. It needs a tow.
This is a fun way for children to remember to add the /s/ sound to blends. You may need to model this technique a few times before a child catches on.
You can change the imagery to be something the child is interested in. For example, you could have the child imagine a fishing rod and say the /s/ sound to reel the omitted sound up and then combine that sound with the rest of the word.
There are also some free resources online you can find with worksheets that can assist you in making this activity more meaningful for your child.
#4 Auditory Bombardment
The technique of auditory bombardment is where an SLP has a child listen to a list of words with the /s/ sound. The speech therapist reads the words, emphasizing the sounds in the words to make them clearer to the child.
This activity can be repeated at home. The idea is that the more a child hears a word and the way it sounds, the more likely they are to start using it correctly themselves. As they hear the words modeled, they learn how they should be said.
Caregivers can practice this technique by fitting in target words as many times as they can during a conversation. According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, auditory bombardment is a way to enhance other language therapies for children with language disorders.
These studies suggested that there was more growth in language development when this form of modeling was used together with other techniques. An example of how to practice this is to choose a target word.
Perhaps your child has trouble with the word “snow.” Now, you can repeat the word as many times as possible in a conversation with your child, being sure to emphasize the /s/ sound, slowly and clearly. An exchange may go like this:
Caregiver: Look at the snow! The snow is white. The snow is cold. Look, when I touch the snow it melts in my hand.
Based on your child’s language development, you may be able to elicit descriptions of the snow from him or her, which can give them practice saying the word on their own.
#5 The Complexity Approach
This method of treatment involves teaching a child more complicated sounds, even ones beyond their developmental level. By learning these more complex sounds, they learn the relationship between sounds, syllables, and words.
In essence, they will learn the sound they are struggling with alongside the more complex sound clusters. Teaching a child sounds beyond their development level may seem counterintuitive, but language acquisition is a complex science, and the relationship between sounds is often influenced by the other sounds you combine them with.
So, these more complex clusters actually help the child learn both the target sound and other sounds. Many children who are struggling with a cluster reduction for /s/ have developmental delays in other parts of their speech, so practicing complex sounds tackles several areas at once.
Common complex clusters that a speech therapist may introduce for a child with a cluster reduction for /s/ are “spl”, “skw”, “sl”, and “spr”. The complexity approach is used to treat functional phonological disorders. It has been used for 30+ years by speech-language pathologists with success.
Finding An SLP To Treat Your Child’s Cluster Reduction for S
If you are concerned about your child’s speech development or believe your child may have a cluster reduction for /s/, you may be looking for a speech-language pathologist who can evaluate and treat your child.
The California Scottish Rite Foundation can help. We offer dedicated support and assistance to children in California by providing childhood speech, language, literacy, and education programs at no cost to families.
Our foundation’s life-changing programs are funded by our donors and grant foundations so that families can seek the support and resources they need to empower their children, decrease frustrations, and pave a pathway to academic success without worrying about whether they can afford it or not.
With 17 RiteCare Childhood Language Centers across California, you can find the right speech-language pathologist to meet your and your child’s needs. We are dedicated to serving the children in our communities.
A cluster reduction for /s/ is a functional phonological disorder where a child omits the /s/ sound in words with /s/ blends. This speech error often develops as a child learns language skills, but it should be resolved by age 5.
In the case that your child still struggles with cluster reduction, a speech-language therapist can evaluate and treat this language disorder. As a caregiver, you can also help by listening to the exercises your SLP suggests for at-home practice and mirroring some of the techniques that SLPs use at home.
With time, your child will feel empowered by their newfound language skills, which will put them on the road to future success.