Talking About Speech: You Are a Phonetics Teacher

Blog #16 in the Phonology Means Nothing and Other Astounding and Very Practical Facts about Speech Sound Disorders Blog Series

For more information about this series, see the Phonology Means Nothing Series welcome page.

By Ken Bleile, PhD
May 14, 2021

As speech-language pathologists, we know [s] is an alveolar consonant produced with the folds of the larynx apart, the air flowing over the tongue, and the tongue tip either raised or lowered behind the front teeth. Our challenge is, how do we convey that and other speech information to a child? Or someone with intellectual challenges? Or, really, anyone who hasn’t received an advanced degree in communication disorders? Fortunately, our profession has developed ways to meet this necessary challenge.


Metaphors compare some aspect of speech to something with which the child is familiar. To illustrate, a metaphor for [s] may be “the snake sound,” and a metaphor for any fricative may be “the long sound.”

Metaphors are a simple way to talk to a child about a treatment sound. Metaphors find their greatest use with children 3 years and older, though some children under 3 also find them beneficial as prompts for them to say a sound in a way a clinician will praise. Grade school students typically enjoy metaphors, while students in junior high school or older often find them too childish

Suggestions: A few simple guidelines may help you make the most of this very useful clinical tool:

1. Vary your metaphors based on a child’s speech challenge. A useful metaphor helps a child focus on the aspect of a sound that challenges them. This can change by individual child. For example, two children may have [s] difficulties, the first because the tongue tip is in the wrong position and the second because of difficulties maintaining frication. For the first child, “the tongue tip sound” might prove useful, and for the second, “the long sound” might work better.

2. Whenever possible, let a child help select the metaphor (Dean, Howell, Hill, & Waters, 1990). The best metaphor is the one a child “buys into.” For example, you might offer a child a choice between two metaphors, both focusing on the child’s challenge with the treatment sound.

3. Provide a little practice to help cement the association between the metaphor and the treatment sound. If, for example, the metaphor for [s] is the snake sound, you might say, “Raise your hand when I say our snake sound. Is it [ʃ]? Is it [f]? Is it [s]?”

If the child has difficulty associating the metaphor with the treatment sound, try increasing the number of distinctive features between the treatment sound and its foils. For example, if the child raises their hand when you ask if the snake sound is [f], try contrasting [s] with [m] (nasal) or [t] (oral stop).

Touch Cues

Touch cues (also called tactile cues or visual phonics) use sight or touch to draw a child’s attention to treatment sounds (typically, their place of production). For example, a clinician and child might touch the lips for bilabial oral stops, touch above the upper lip for alveolar stops, and touch under the back of the chin for velar stops.

The nice clinical trick of touch cues is to make the treatment sound a multimodal experience coming to a child through the ear, eye, and touch. Designed originally for children with oral-motor challenges, touch cues now enjoy wide clinical use. Most children 3 years and older benefit from touch cues. As with metaphors, even toddlers may respond well to them, perhaps because touch cues serve as prompts to produce a sound in a way that the clinician praises.

Descriptions and Demonstrations

Descriptions and demonstrations provide another way to heighten a child’s speech awareness, either with or without production demands. A possible description of [p], for example, may draw the child’s attention to the closing lips, the buildup of air behind the lips, and the sudden release of air. A demonstration accompanying the description might involve placing a piece of paper in front of the child’s lips to show the sudden release of air or gently pressing the child’s lips together to show lip closure.

Descriptions and demonstrations provide a lesson on how to say a treatment sound. Occasionally, a description or demonstration successfully converts a nonstimulable sound into a stimulable one, removing the need to perform phonetic placement and shaping. Computer applications, electropalatography, spectrography, Visi-Pitch, and ultrasound offer exciting advances in how you can help a child to see and place the articulators. Consider this form of talking about speech for:

  • Students and second language learners
  • Grade school students in conjunction with metaphors and touch cues  
  • Late preschooler with intact attention and cognitive skills

Phonetic Placement and Shaping

Phonetic placement teaches articulatory postures (typically, tongue, jaw, and lip positions) for speech production. A phonetic placement technique to teach [t], for example, may ask a student to raise the tongue tip, touch the tongue tip to the alveolar ridge, and then to quickly draw the tongue tip down again. Shaping uses a sound a student already produces (either a speech error or another sound) to learn a new sound. A shaping technique, for example, may provide a series of steps through which a student who says [w] learns to say [r]. Phonetic placement and shaping were a clinician’s stock-and-trade throughout much of the 20th century (Fairbanks, 1960; Nemoy & Davis, 1954), though their use declined as clinical populations shifted downward in age and increased in severity (Bleile, 2017).

Think of phonetic placement and shaping as multipurpose tools. Their primary function is to transform a nonstimulable sound into a stimulable one. After that, treatment proceeds as for a stimulable sound. Their related function is to increase awareness of speech, acting in much the same way as their close cousins, descriptions and demonstrations. The same higher technology options for those methods can also assist in phonetic placement and shaping. Phonetic placement and shaping often proves effective with grade school through high school students and with selected late preschoolers. They also may assist adults learning English as a second language. 


Bleile, K. (2017). The late eight (3rd ed.). San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.

Dean, E., Howell, J., Hill, A., & Waters, D. (1990). Metaphon resource pack. Windsor, UK: NFER-Nelson.

Fairbanks, G. (1960). Voice and articulation drill book. New York: Harper & Row.

Müller, N., Guendouzi, J., & Ball, M. J. (2000). Accent modification, pronunciation training, communication enhancement: The need for definitions, delimitations, and research. Advances in Speech-Language Pathology, 2, 151–154.

Nemoy, E., & Davis, S. (1954). The correction of defective consonant sounds. Magnolia, MA: Expression.