(#6) A Remarkable Method to Lift the Front-Tongue (for ALL Front-Tongue Sounds)
Do you want to know how to lift and move the tongue for a good /s/? Here’s the answer: Contract the mid-tongue. Mid-tongue contraction (a tongue bowl) lifts the front-tongue. There’s a little more to it, but basically that’s what we need to do with our kids.
I’ve known how to get the front-tongue to lift for front-tongue speech sounds for over 30 years. It’s about the mechanics of the tongue muscles; specifically, how the mid-tongue contracts and stabilizes internally to elevate the front-tongue.
It’s essential in speech production but one that’s frequently overlooked in our field.
I learned about front-tongue elevation from an article shared with me by a physiologist friend and professor. This was back in the ‘80’s when the article was brand new. It was big news at that time and apparently made quite a splash in the physiology field.
It’s an article by Kier and Smith (1985), called “Tongues, tentacles and trunks: the biomechanics of movement in muscular-hydrostats.” A real page-turner; but real important.
Many of our speech-kid’s tongues’ move horizontally when they speak. Would you agree?
Their tongue’s move on the horizontal plane, mid-mouth, as they produce their stops, substitutions and syllable reductions, culminating into lisps and interdental /t/s, /d/s, /s/s, /l/s, etc., etc. They lack front-tongue vertical movement, i.e., elevation. Say the following out loud and notice your front-tongue: /t/, /d/, /n/, /s/, /z/, "sh" and "ch" (+voiced cognates), and curling, the /l/ and the retroflex /r/).
Lingual consonants are vertical (even the back ones); except for the voiced and unvoiced “th’s.” They’re horizontal.
Kier and Smith tell us that the tongue is similar to an elephant’s truck and an octopus’ arms; they refer to them as muscular hydrostats. None, including the human tongue, have a skeleton. There are no bones, and obviously no joints. So how do they move?
Here’s how the tongue moves: When the mid-tongue contracts, the mid-muscles shorten, and the front-tongue lifts. The greater the mid-tongue contraction, the greater the lift.
For example, a /t/ requires a small amount of front-tongue elevation, therefore, requires a small amount of mid-tongue contraction. An /l/ and retroflex /r/ require more front-tongue lifting, therefore they require a greater amount of mid-tongue contraction. The in-between lingual consonants elevate and contract accordingly.
With a tongue depressor, tap-tap-tap the mid-tongue to generate contraction. Do so multiple times, with moderate pressure. Make sure the tongue is inside their mouth.
When they tighten the mid-tongue the tongue “bowls.” Go for a pretty big bowl (lots of contraction) at first; generate it several times. Look in the mirror; see it, do it. Have them close their eyes; focus and feel and replicate it. Over a matter of time—days to a couple weeks—have them develop mid-tongue contraction capability.
Then, begin to shape tongue-bowl control, i.e., tongue-bowl gradients. Spray water (3 to 4 sprays) into their “big” tongue bowl; hold-the-bowl, look, feel, swallow. Spray a little less water (2 to 3 sprays) for a “medium” sized tongue bowl (same thing), then spray one spray to generate a controlled small, refined tongue bowl. Turn their attention to how the front-tongue moves when their mid-tongue tightens. Take your time. Build-in the capability.
There is nothing magical about this, nor is it a reflex. Nor, should you expect to stimulate an immediate good speech sound just because you tapped the mid-tongue.
What you are doing is applying a tactile indicator to the mid-tongue to get deliberate, consistent, contraction for front-tongue lifting that you can eventually shape into viable speech sounds.
When shaping, start with /t/. Be sure the tongue is up within the dental arch and the tongue-sides are anchored on the top, side teeth; that’s the tongue’s external stabilization.
There are a few variables I haven’t mentioned, and one of them is tongue tone. In most cases, ‘adequate’ tonicity is required to generate tongue-bowl gradients. Therefore, if you have a child with a visibly flaccid tongue, you may have difficulty facilitating a useful tongue-bowl. (Toning may be in order; we’ll cover that in a separate Therapy Matters.) In the meantime….
Go for it! Generate and establish a good “tongue bowl” with one or more of your kids. In a few weeks, let me know how it’s going!
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