Empty Set and Phonology approaches

Empty Set and Phonology approaches

I have been avoiding the use of the Empty Set approach for the longest time as I was not sure if it would work seeing that I am challenging two sounds my student struggles with at the same time. But I decided to give it a go and it works a treat!

With this approach, we use two sounds that our student is struggling with. For example, in my video this student cannot produce /sh/ and /r/. Both sounds have different rules, so I decided to contrast them with each other.

  • The rules of /sh/ are: no voice, air is pushed out through teeth, produced at the front.
  • The rules for /r/ are: use your voice, produce the sound in the middle of the mouth by shaping your tongue in a particular way.

So I chose the words ‘shoes’ and ‘ruse’ as their rules are quite different. Contrasting two sounds the student does not know has been shown to lead to greater change in the child’s articulation. And I can certainly vouch for this as my student is making the best progress with this approach.

Phonology Therapy – what is it, why and how?

Phonology is the study of the sound system of a language. It’s distinct from articulation therapy which focuses on the physical production of sounds.

Phonology therapy focuses on rules. For example, sounds that are produced at the front of the mouth, in contrast to sounds that are produced at the back of the mouth, or sounds that are produced with a long air stream: /s/ or /f/ versus short sounds like /p/ or /t/; sounds are produced with voice or without voice.

Many children, and sometimes adults, are unaware of some of the speech rules and confuse and replace individual sounds. They might say TAT instead of CAT or SIP instead of SHIP.

A quick overview of phonology approaches I use:

Minimal Pairs:

This approach is good for single sound substitutions. We offer word pairs that differ by only one sound, like ‘ship’ and ‘sip.’ One of our first goal in therapy is to highlight the difference between the target sound (e.g., /sh/) and the sound the child uses (e.g., /s/). This helps discriminate and eventually produce the correct sound.

Multiple Oppositions:

A child might replace lots of sounds with a single sound like a /d/. So instead of ‘four’, ‘chore’ and ‘store’ our child says ‘door’, making speech very unintelligible.

The approach is typically geared towards shaking up the phonological system. Our goal is to choose two to four targets that are different from each other, and different from the substituted sound. If our child’s favourite sound is /d/ they can use their voice and make a short sound by stopping their airflow. So I will choose a different target sound to change up the speech system. For example I might choose an /f/, a /m/ and a /k/ sound. So I would contrast: ‘door’ with ‘four’, ‘more’ and ‘core’.

Maximal Oppositions:

In the Maximal Oppositions approach the treatment sets consists of words that are minimally contrasted and that have maximal or near maximal feature differences between each word pair. One word in a pair represents a sound the child ‘knows’ (can say at word level) and the other represents a sound the child does not know (cannot say).

For example, a child may ‘know’ /m/ and be able to say words like ‘man’, ‘mat’ and ‘mine’. However, the same child may be unable to say /f/ as in ‘fan’, ‘fat’ and ‘fine’. The consonants /f/ and /m/ are maximally opposed as follows.

I am always delighted to work on speech sound disorders, I love the challenge and the successes we can celebrate together. Get in touch with me!

Sonja McGeachie

Early Intervention Speech and Language Therapist

Feeding and Dysphagia (Swallowing) Specialist The London Speech and Feeding Practice

The London Speech and Feeding Practice

Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

Principles of motor learning in childhood apraxia of speech: A guide for parents and therapists

Principles of motor learning in childhood apraxia of speech: A guide for parents and therapists

Image by Freepik

Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS) is a complex neurological disorder that affects a child’s ability to plan and coordinate the movements necessary for speech production. Children with CAS often have difficulty with articulation, prosody, and fluency, making it challenging for them to communicate effectively. While there is no cure for CAS, speech and language therapy can significantly improve a child’s communication skills and overall quality of life. Understanding the principles of motor learning is crucial for both parents and speech therapists to support children with CAS on their speech journey.


Motor learning refers to the process of acquiring and refining new skills through practice and experience. This applies to all aspects of movement, including speech production. The brain constantly receives sensory information about the movements being made and adjusts them based on the desired outcome. A breakdown or interruption of this process can make it difficult for children to plan, sequence, and coordinate the intricate movements involved in speech.

What key principles do we use in speech and language therapy for motor learning?

  • Task Specificity: Speech Therapy activities that directly target the specific speech sounds or skills your child is working on. For example, if your child is struggling with /p/, practising isolated /p/ sounds, words with /p/, and phrases with /p/ would be most beneficial.
  • Massed vs. Distributed Practice: We consider the optimal amount and distribution of practice sessions throughout the day. Massed practice involves concentrated practice in a single session, while distributed practice spreads practice sessions throughout the day. The best approach depends on the individual child’s learning style and attention span.
  • Feedback: We provide clear and immediate feedback to help your child understand the accuracy and effectiveness of their attempts. This feedback can be auditory, visual, or touch based.
  • Error Correction: We aim to gently correct errors so that we can help your child refine their movements and avoid developing bad habits. The focus is on providing specific cues and guidance rather than simply pointing out mistakes.
  • Variety and Progression: We gradually introduce new challenges and variations in speech therapy activities to prevent plateaus and maintain motivation.
  • Motivation and Engagement: A big part of our work is to make therapy sessions fun and engaging to keep your child motivated and actively participating. We use games, songs, and activities that your child enjoys while incorporating targeted practice opportunities.

What about home work?

Yes we need your help and here are some examples of how this could look:

  • Task Specificity: During story time, focus on practising target sounds present in the story. Have your child repeat words or phrases containing the sound and encourage them to identify the sound in other words.
  • Massed vs. Distributed Practice: Instead of one long practice session, try shorter, more frequent sessions throughout the day. This can help maintain focus and prevent fatigue. It is recommended to go for 100 repetitions of the target sound per day, every day in between the sessions. We can decide together how you can best do that through either massed or distributed practice. We can decide after the session.
  • Feedback: Use a mirror to provide visual feedback on lip and tongue placement during sound production. Record the child’s speech and play it back to help them self-monitor their accuracy.

I quite like this mirror below but any table top mirror will work as long as it is not too small. Your child should see their whole face easily.

tabletop mirror
  • Error Correction: If the child makes an error, gently model the correct sound or movement without shaming or criticising. Provide specific cues such as ‘lips together’ for /p/ or ‘tongue up’ for /t/.
  • Variety and Progression: We will guide you on exactly what words to practise so this is something you need not worry about.
  • Motivation and Engagement: Use games, songs, and activities that your child enjoys. Play a game of ‘I Spy’ focusing on words with the target sound or create silly sentences with the sound to make practice fun.

Let’s work together!

It is crucial for parents, therapists, and other caregivers to work collaboratively to ensure a consistent and comprehensive approach to supporting your child’s speech development. Speech and Language Therapists can provide guidance and resources on implementing these principles at home, while parents can share observations and progress updates to inform therapy sessions.

Remember, every child with CAS learns at their own pace. By understanding and applying the principles of motor learning, parents and speech therapists can create a supportive and stimulating environment that empowers children with CAS to reach their full communication potential.

Do get in touch if you would like some in-person or on-line 1:1 support with this. It can be overwhelming to figure it all out alone.

Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.



Kids Speech Therapist London

Does your child say “Dough” instead of “Go”? Or “Tea” instead of “Key”? Do you hear a /Sh/ instead of an /S/ does “see” sound more like “she”?

We Speechies call this a Fronting Pattern which means that a sound that should be produced at the back of the throat with the back of the tongue, like K or G , is said at the front of the mouth with the tip of the tongue, like a T or a D or SH. When this happens speech can be really hard to make out because these sounds are literally everywhere in everyday sentences. Just think how many K’s and G’s we hear in a simple sentence?

For example, I heard my little student say earlier today: “I know what game we can play in your garden? It’s the one with cones and rings and cushions! I know where it is I can get it.”

But it sounded like:

“I know what DAME we DAN play in the DARDEN! It’s the one with TONES and rings and TUSHIONS! I know where it is I TAN DED it.”

If that sounds familiar to you, here is a little overview of what we can do about it:

First up it’s always good to start with general speech sounds awareness: does a child hear syllables and intonation? Do they know words that rhyme? Can they follow or copy a simple beat with a drum? Can they listen and hear quiet sounds and loud sounds and can they copy those? Can they follow mouth and tongue movements:, for example : stick out your tongue, lick your lips, click your tongue, blow raspberries?

Then it really helps to talk about BACK and FRONT of things and to draw attention to the back of the mouth and the back of the tongue and the front tip of the tongue and how sounds are made in the mouth. I often use a puppet to show this or a model of a mouth like this one here in the picture.

Next we try and listen to words starting with a BACK sounds like a K or a G , and I read out a list of words with those sounds: COW, CORE, CAT, CONE, KEY etc or ARK, EEK, OAK, ACHE…


After that we try and see if a student can actually produce a single sound like a K or a G just by itself. If they can, that’s a really great start and if they can’t I help them to produce one – over a few sessions we usually get there. We call this Sound production in isolation.

Once a child can produce a sound correctly, on its own, we try and start working on very simple words that are really powerful like “GO”!!!!! in a motivating game or “CAR” for little ones who love a car racing track.

Now that we have established the back sounds and are using it in short words, we can gradually re-train brain pathways and oral- motor/movement pathways to use these new sounds in many words and then short phrases. That can take time!! This is called generalisation and it is not uncommon for it to take up a whole year for fluent speech to be error-free .

Why does it take so long? Being able to produce a correct and clear K or G sound does not mean it will be used easily. Our brain pathways are fixated or habituated to the error sound. It takes time for habits to change. A child might be able to hear the word TIGER with a G in the middle and she knows that it is not a TIDER but when saying it her tongue automatically moves forward rather than lifts up at the back. It’s a bit like a person who has a rounded back: the brain knows to stand upright and how not to slouch, but when we don’t focus on it, ooops we have slouched again because that is what we are comfortable doing and our body moves with our habit.

It takes effort and motivation to change our movement patterns and that includes our tongue and lip patterns! We usually get there through a huge variety of games and practice. Lots and lots of repetition is key as is motivation to change.

Parents and carers are crucial in the success of Speech Therapy!

We need your feedback at home, the regular short and sweet exercises, the constant positive encouragement and great modelling of speech sounds. We often find that parents are tuned into their child’s error sounds and can understand them much better than anyone else. This is great of course in many ways, however, it also means that the child has less motivation to change: if mummy understands me then my world is ok.

I will give you a short outline of what different speech therapy models I use in my practice, be it in clinic face to face or on-line in my future blogs soon.

Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.