The /l/ sound is unusual in English because it’s made with lateral air release. This is different from many other sounds, such as /s/, where we are trying to avoid lateral air release at all costs! For /l/, kids need to learn to send air over the sides of the tongue. For this reason, some kids do benefit from a little bit of help to get their tongue in the right position. The following sequence can work well in terms of what to try from least hands on to most!
What you need: a mirror, a tongue depressor, dental floss (waxed and bubble gum flavored!)
Show the child how you lift the tip of your tongue up behind your upper teeth. See if they can imitate this. If they have a hard time, check that they have /d/, /t/, or /n/ in their inventory as these share the same placement, and can be used as a prime to help teach them where to put their tongue for /l/. As a general rule of thumb, I like to teach /d/ or /n/ before /l/ when there are no tip-alveolars in the inventory.
Ask the child to imitate syllables of “lah” or “luh.” If they struggle, get out your dental floss! (Quarantine edition: you can coach parents through these next steps by showing them how to do it on yourself via webcam!)
Have the child “hold” the middle of a long piece of dental floss up against their alveolar ridge, or the spot just behind their upper teeth. You hold on to both ends of the floss. As the child “holds” the middle of the piece up against the alveolar ridge, you can start to pull down gently on the sides of their tongue with the floss. As you pull down gently, the floss will slide slightly down the child’s tongue, which allows you to help them get their tongue into the correct shape for /l/. This is why waxed and flavored floss helps for these activities, because it’s a bit softer and tastes good! Now ask the child to imitate “lah” or “luh” again.
Because you’ve helped them get their tongue into the right position, the sound will be there! Do 5 to 10 reps and then see if they’re able to make the sound correctly with focusing on the floss but not actually having you pull down on the sides. If so, great! Do a few more reps and see if they can make the sound without the floss at all. If not, go back to helping with pulling gently down on the sides of the floss and see if you can give extra feedback for them to listen to what they’re doing and feel how their tongue is moving.
Things to watch out for:
Remember that word final /l/ is velarized. A common error for young kids is that they use the light, or front /l/ in word final position, which can make their speech sound younger. This is common in kids who also front /k/ and /g/. Targeting words that have low back vowels like “uh” and “oh” as in “gull” or “pole” can be a good way to introduce word final /l/ to get the appropriate dark velar coloring. Once they can do these, then expand to words that have high front vowels like “eel” and “smile.”
What if the error is a nasal substitution?
If the substitution is an /n/ for /l/, I find it’s easiest to start with a word medial /n/ in nonsense syllables. That’s because you can use open mouth context of the initial vowel to facilitate orally directed airflow, which makes it easier to break the nasal habit. Focusing on similarities between /d/ and /l/ can help also. If kids are substituting /n/ for /d/ too, then I would start with that distinction by occluding the nostrils during /n/ to force a /d/. You can also try having them sustain an /l/ in isolation by getting the tongue in the correct placement but giving feedback about sending the sound out of the mouth instead of the nose.
If you need free /l/ flashcard printouts, check out our free downloads page!