Things could be so much easier if we understood the letter s
What possibly is there to know about <s> you ask? Well for starters it has two sounds, /s/ and /z/ as in cats and dogs, known as voiced and unvoiced sibilants. Teaching the two sounds to our students gives them yet another tool to help break the code of American English. Let’s explore this a bit deeper.
The Old English alphabet looked something like this,
The letter z has had a long history of being in and out of the English alphabet. If we think of the English language as a creation from other languages it is easy to understand how this could happen. Each letter of the alphabet has a story of its own, but for today I’m sticking to s as /z/! The Latin and Greek alphabets greatly influenced the English letters. Linguists will tell us that the sounds of the letters back then have little bearing on the sounds we have now. Simplified, we do know the <s> took on the /z/ sound on numerous occasions.
So imagine with me that you teach <s> as /s/ and /z/. Generalizing, if you hear/z/ at the beginning this won’t be an <s>, therefore, zap and sap are not problems. You could eliminate a handful of primary sight words, aka nonphonemic words such as: as, is, has and his since they’d no longer be nonphonemic!
Moving on to the higher level students, the 2 sounds will become more apparent in the suffixes -s and -es:
- after an unvoiced consonant, it is pronounced /s/ as in cats, mops, perks, sniffs
- after a vowel or vowel pair, it is pronounced /z/ as in mows, laws, plays, keys, dues, she’s, trees, toes, skis
- after schwa as in was, quotas, fellas
- after voiced consonants, it is pronounced /z/ as in shrubs, sheds, snags
- after a schwa vowel when used as the suffix -es, it is pronounced /z/ as in bunches, passes, fixes
I would like to add it is pretty hard to use the wrong pronunciation in context (try to say cats with a /z/), although you will find a great many students who struggle with the phonemic awareness skills to hear the difference in the spoken word. Check out my Edits game. I guarantee you will be surprised how challenging the discerning of sounds can be for even older students.
“irregular” words with final s are often pronounced /z/.
Then there is this pattern with the same spelling, different pronunciation and case. Again there will always be exceptions.
So to sum it up in generalities,
s as /z/ (usually):
- after a voiced consonant: bags, trucks
- after a vowel or vowel pair: rose, phase, muse, please, poise, reason
- words that are verbs: advise, expose, cleanse
- <s> will never be /z/ in the initial position or when there are doubled letters: zip, fuzz
These are common patterns with exceptions. Nothing in teaching English is always or never. I am sure you can see the strong patterns that develop when you read these generalities. How can we not teach <s> as /z/? I would never expect or even encourage you to share all of this information with your student. I do ask that you start teaching the two sounds of <s>. Try it out, come back and leave a comment.
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