Things could be so much easier if we understood the letter s

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/.

as, is, was
has, says, goes
does, shoes, always

Then there is this pattern with the same spelling, different pronunciation and case. Again there will always be exceptions.

verbs /z/      nouns /s/
use           use
close          close
excuse          excuse
refuse          refuse
                                                  housing        house
abuse         abuse
devise         devise

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.

Happy decoding!

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Rebecca - April 20, 2022

Thank you for this informative article.
Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Rebecca, thank you so much for taking the time to comment! I am so glad you found it informative.

Karen Sonday - April 30, 2019

Since it comes in right away with as and has and then is and his we teach it from day 1. Most kids haven’t learned it and it’s pretty fun to rock their world right off the bat.

Pamela Mehlin - March 26, 2019

@Nancy and Karen, I’m thrilled to hear others are doing this too! I know it wasn’t part of my initial OG training so I thought I would share how helpful it is. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

Nancy Lawlor - March 26, 2019

Great blog post, Pam! I also teach the two sounds of s. I agree that students struggle with phonemic awareness skills to hear the difference between the /s/ and /z/ sounds in the spoken word. Thank you for sharing this information.

Karen Herman - March 26, 2019

I loved this!!! I do teach the two sounds!;-) I’m reading 📖 in Linz, Austria 🇦🇹

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