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.

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