Teaching Speech Sounds at the Isolation and Syllable Levels

I just uploaded some free worksheets I made for teaching speech sounds in isolation (the sound by itself) and in syllables (the sound paired with vowels). I talked about these two levels in my posts titled The Process of Articulation Therapy and Correcting a Frontal Lisp, but since I just added some free worksheets to use at these beginning levels, I thought I would describe them a bit more.

Teaching a Sound in Isolation:

When introducing a new sound, I will often use the syllable wheel which has the letter (both uppercase and lowercase in the center. I also use the sound cards from Keli Richmond’s Literacy Speaks program.  This is great for incorporating the orthographic symbol (written letter) into your speech therapy.  For more information on how to use the written letter in articulation therapy click here!

When you are beginning to work with your child on the sound, have them watch and listen carefully as you say it.  After they have watched and listened, ask, “Can you copy me?” Just as if you were playing the game “copy cat,” have them try to say it like you did… EXACTLY!  Make it a game! It is a good idea to really slow down your speech so your child has time to watch carefully and pay close attention to the sound you are making!

**I saw a fantastic demonstration of this “copy cat” technique by Dr. Wayne A. Secord at a workshop I attended back in 2009.  It was amazing!  Dr. Secord is co-author of a must-have speech therapy resource titled, Eliciting Sounds:  Techniques and Strategies for Clinicians.  He is a former school-based SLP and has authored and co-authored many speech therapy books and assessments.  To read Dr. Secord’s bio click here! And go hear him present if you ever get a chance.  You will enjoy it.

Okay, back to teaching the sound.  If your child is able to copy you when you show them how to say the sound, that’s great. This is called being ‘stimulable’ and it should make the process of articulation therapy easier.  It also indicates to a speech therapist that the child will most likely be able to say the sound in words, etc.on their own with little or no intervention.

If your child cannot imitate the sound by watching and listening, then give them some feedback about how to place their tongue or lips. For example, if you are working on the /k/ sound, you might say something like, “It is a back sound” or you could use a visual cue such as touching your throat when you say /k/.

I will have to write another post about what types of cues and descriptions I use for eliciting and teaching all the speech sounds, but for now, I will just give you some examples of  the types of cues, or things you can say, when trying to elicit or teach a sound.  Here is a brief overview of three types of cues:  visual, auditory, and tactile.

Types of Cues to Use When Teaching a Sound

Visual Cues:

  • Watch me! A child gets “visual cues” just by looking at your mouth as you say the sound.
  •  Use pictures to illustrate and label the different parts of the mouth (upper lip, lower lip, tongue tip, back of the tongue, upper teeth, lower teeth, etc.)
  • Lateral diagrams are great for showing front vs. back placement in the mouth
  • A mirror (side by side or hand-held)
  • A mouth puppet (SuperDuper Inc. has a rubber mouth-puppet that my kids just can’t seem to get enough of!)
  • Pair the verbal sound with a hand gesture.  For example, touch your throat for a back sound or use an exploding fist to show how the lips “pop” open for the /p/ sound.

Auditory Cues:

  • Listening to me! A child gets auditory cues by listening to good speech models.
  • Sometimes I use auditory bombardment (reading word lists that contain the target sound) while the child just listens.
  • You can use auditory discrimination.  This involves asking the child to listen for the sound that is correct vs incorrect.  For example, I have my kids listen to me and give me a thumbs up when they hear me say a good /s/ vs. a slushy /s/ (frontal or lateral lisped /s/).

Tactile Cues:

  • A tactile cue is when you physically touch the parts of the mouth to help the child put their tongue or lips in the right spot.
  • I use flavored tongue depressors (very popular with my speech kids) When using a tongue depressor, I just tap the parts of the mouth that need to make contact then ask the child to see if they can make those two parts touch.  I have also used  tongue depressors as a bite block to help stabilize the jaw.
  • Speech Buddies (I just purchased these and I LOVE them).  If you use Speech Buddies, they come with instructions on where and how to place each instrument.

So there you go.  Those three types of cues are going to give you some great ideas when explaining to your child how a sound is produced.  It might take a while before your child can say the sound, but once they do, it’s so exciting! Be sure to give lots of positive feedback when you hear them say it correctly! (i.e. Yay! Good talking! Great speech!” etc.)

Teaching a Sound in Syllables:

Let’s say your child now can correctly say the /k/ sound at least 20 times in a row with no errors.  Awesome! Once they can do this, you are ready to start teaching the sound in syllables using the syllable wheel!

The Syllable Wheel

First, I’d like to thank and give credit where credit is due, to Ruth Harris, who was my early intervention clinic supervisor during my graduate studies at CSUN, for this genius idea.  I have used this countless times and love it!

Teaching a sound at the syllable level means you pair the target sound with a vowel (I like to start with short vowel sounds and then move to long vowel sounds). I begin with broken syllables and then move to blended syllables.  Start by having the child say the target sound in the middle of the wheel and then say a vowel.   I added arrows to this wheel to show you the sound in the initial position of syllables.

Initial position – broken syllables:
p – a, p – e, p – i, p – o, p – u

Here is an example:


Medial position – broken syllables:  

I will show the kids how these nonsense syllables or silly syllables work by drawing different color arrows from vowel to target sound to vowel.  There are lots of different combinations you can make!  The colored arrows below show some various combinations.

Here are the basic ones:

a – p – a, e – p – e, i – p – i, o – p – o, u – p – u

Here is an example:


Final position – broken syllables:
a – p, e – p, i – p, o – p, u – p


I use the same syllable wheel when we begin to blend the target sound with the vowel.  I slide my finger from the target sound to the vowel to show that there is no break.  It is one continuous flow of speech and air to “blend” the sounds together.  Blending the sounds creates some nonsense, silly syllables which can be very amusing.  Watch out for some “not so amusing” consonant vowel combos (i.e. short a + s = ass).  Some of these “silly syllables” end up being actual words! Eek.

Blended syllables sound like this:

Initial blended syllables:

pay, pea, pie, poe, puu

Medial blended syllables:

apo, epa, ipi, opo, upu, ipu, api, upo

Final blended syllables:

ape, eep, ipe, ope, uup

I hope this explanation and syllable wheel help you as you teach your kids new sounds! I’d love to hear if you like these and how your therapy is going!




44 thoughts on “Teaching Speech Sounds at the Isolation and Syllable Levels”

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  20. Hi there! I like this idea a lot! But I have a question and hoping you could help. Do you have a way I could use for teaching /r/ in isolation? Since there are so many variations, I’m not sure how to start with a student who just began working on this goal. Also, does the Syllable Wheel apply to /r/ as well? Or is there a different one I’d have to use using the vocalic /r/ instead?

    Thank you,

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  32. My child is almost 3 and when it comes to long vowel sounds and oo, it appears that he is not stimulable. He has been going to speech therapy since 18 months, 3-4 times a week. Someone suggested an oral placement therapist. I found one 40 miles away but I can’t afford her as she doesn’t take insurance. Do you have any suggestions?

  33. My son has an issue with pronouncing the G sound. It comes out as a D sound everyone. He also interchanges L and W. How would I work with him to fix this? Thank you so much for your time and assistance!

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    1. Hi..I am currently working with a child who produces only the first syllable of the words and repetitive syllable words (mama, tata,etc). He is unable to produce different sound combinations (‘tapa’, ‘tada’) but is able to produce words that start with vowels (‘apple’ ,’up). He is only 2 year old, he is having difficulty with /k/, /g/ sounds in isolation as well. How do I go about it? How can I elicit different sound combinations?? Thanks in advance!

  35. I need some advice on how to teach the / p/,/m/ and /b/ sounds at the of the words to a preschooler … he puts the /t/ sound instead of the /p/ sound at the end e.g. pot for pop or ut-up
    Thank you !

    1. Hi Nancy,
      Does this little guy have other sounds he needs to work on? If he has multiple articulation errors or phonological processes, ry teaching a later developing, non-stimulable, speech sound in order to make a great change throughout the child’s sound system.
      If he only has p,b,m in the final position of words and there is no structural reason he is substituting them at the end of words, he will get it soon! Keep modeling and using lots of auditory bombardment and facilitating contexts.
      Work on the plosive nature of p/b at the end using visuals like a tissue or tactile (your/his hand) to feel the air that come out and the plosive quality of those sounds. Lindamood Bell also has great tactile cues for helping kids learn the place and manner of sounds in their LIPS program.

      1. Wow! I have a child that does nearly the same thing, but he substitutes t for p initial position, but can do the end. I have tried everything!!!! And…he’s extremely unintelligible, so that’s what I have done (worked on later sounds) because he was struggling so much with the p. I think this might be better! Try it. 🙂

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    1. Yes, I’m so sorry I didn’t reply sooner! I would look into Lindmoodbell’s LIPS program and also the Kaufman speech praxis. Those are two programs I have liked using when working on vowel distortions.
      I will try to post on these programs in the near future.
      Hope that helps you. Thank you for your question.

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