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ESL Pronunciation Lesson for “S” Words

Happy kids at elementary school

This ESL pronunciation lesson was contributed by English teacher, Lorena Siegel. Originally from Mexico, Lorena is a Bridge graduate and has been teaching for over 20 years in diverse settings, including language institutes, middle and high schools, and corporations. She now runs her own English tutoring business in Playa del Carmen. 

As an experienced English teacher who was born in Mexico and learned both English and Spanish at the same time, I understand firsthand my students’ issues with ESL pronunciation. I still live and teach in Mexico, where I have observed the struggle of my beginner-level native Spanish-speaking students when pronouncing words that start with the letter s, particularly if the s is part of a consonant cluster.

There’s plenty of tips and tricks for how to teach kids English that will help your students. This fun activity with “Stacy the Snake” can help with s consonant clusters. But first, let’s look at the issue a little closer.

To learn more teaching techniques for young students, check out our newest TEFL courses: Teaching English to Young Learners and Teaching English to Teenagers

ESL Phonics Issues – What’s a Consonant Cluster?

A consonant cluster is pretty much what it sounds like; it’s when consonants are strung together in a word without an intervening vowel, and you hear both of them, such as the sm that starts the word “smile.” Words that start with s consonant clusters can be a particular struggle for students whose first language is Spanish, Italian, or French (or the other Romance languages).

We All Have Embedded Pronunciation Habits

Let’s start with an example to show this concept in action: A native Spanish-speaking student will more than likely say the following sentence in this manner: I eat es-paguetti after I come home from es-school where I es-study English.

By default, these English learners have an embedded pronunciation habit stemming from the simple fact that most consonant cluster s-words in English begin with the sound “es” in the Romance languages. For example, in Spanish; spaghetti is espagueti, school is escuela, and study is estudiar. Therefore, it’s second nature for students to place the “e” sound before the s when pronouncing consonant clusters.

ESL Pronunciation Lesson for Young Learners and Teens: Stacy the Snake

Here’s a fun lesson for young students who are just starting to learn English. Use this simple, 7-step technique to help decrease and even eliminate the “es” sound before words that start with s for your Spanish, French, or Italian-speaking students.


Step 1

Prior to your lesson, write a short list of 4 to 5 words starting with sp, sk, st, sn, or sc sounds. Make sure the words you choose are simple or are ones that students already know and can be easily applied to the class. For example, you could use the following words: speak, school, Spanish, snake, study.


Step 2

Begin the lesson by drawing a picture of an upright snake, shaped like an s, on the board. Give your snake a name, like Stacy Snake, which will immediately integrate the consonant cluster sound, but don’t write the name under your drawing just yet.

Next, ask your class what sound a snake makes. If they’re Spanish speakers, they will call out, sssssss! This is the long ‘ssss’ sound you are looking for and you can always go back to your snake as a reference point throughout the lesson to help remind your students what sound they need to focus on.

Note: A French snake will say siffle, and Italian students will call out zssss, so just ask them to concentrate on the long s sound.


Step 3

From your list, call out each word one at a time and ask your students to repeat after you. Do not write the words on the board yet, as visual cues can often lead to incorrect pronunciation, due to the fact words in English are rarely spelled the way they sound and can be very troublesome for students.


Step 4

While you say each word and your class repeats after you, have your students carefully listen to one another and ask them to look out for the “es” sound. As you go around the room, you will find that some students will have more difficulty with the pronunciation and there may be a lot of giggling as every person has a go at saying each word.

If students start to tease one another and you sense the shy ones are becoming uncomfortable, remind your class that this is a natural learning process and their pronunciation will improve with time. For classes of teens, you can even explain the reason why they put the e sound before the s cluster by referring to that section of this article.


Step 5

Once your students have said each word a couple of times, you can now write them on the board. Have students pronounce the words with you as you write each one. Make sure to elongate the s sound as you write. If you want, you can use the following phonetic spelling next to each word to help with pronunciation.


  • 1-speak – sssspi-k
  • 2-school – sssk-ul
  • 3-Spanish – ssspa-nesh
  • 4-snake – sssnei-k
  • 5-study – sssta-di

Step 6

Once all the words have been written on the board, ask your students to copy them in their notebooks with their phonetic pronunciation. Also, ask your class to draw the S-shaped snake in their notebooks to remind them what the lesson is about. At this time, write your snake’s name, Stacy, beneath your drawing.


Step 7

Write a short, one sentence story using the words you have written.

Stacy snake likes to speak in Spanish, but she goes to school to study English.

Read the sentence out loud and have your students repeat it. Don’t let them copy the sentence until everyone has had a chance to read it from the board. If they’re still having problems with the s sound, rewrite the sentence as follows:

Stacysnake likes tospeak inSpanish, but she goes toschool tostudy English.

By joining the s-consonant clusters with the preceding words, your students´ visual perception won’t give their brains the necessary space they need to instinctively add the “es” sound, and their pronunciation will automatically improve! Be sure to tell your students that this “pushing words together” trick can be used whenever they face an s-consonant cluster.

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate. You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

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