The /r/ phoneme is one of the most common misarticulated sounds, and it can be one of the most challenging sounds to correct. Many of the sounds we produce are visual, which is very helpful for school-age children.
One of the reasons /r/ is so hard to teach is because the child is unable to see what their tongue looks like or where it is inside the mouth. In addition, the way in which the tongue is positioned in the mouth for an accurate production of /r/ varies from person to person.
How the “R” sound is formed
The front part of the tongue may be “retroflexed”, which means that the tongue tip is pointing slightly up and back, behind the teeth, or the tongue may be “bunched”, which means that the middle of the tongue is bunched in the middle area of the mouth. The sides of the tongue must press against the back teeth or molars for both the “bunched” and “retroflexed” tongue positions.
The /r/ phoneme is even more complicated because the pronunciation depends on where the sound falls in a word. The /r/ can be prevocalic (comes before a vowel, “rabbit”), intervocalic (between two vowels, “cherry”) or postvocalic (after a vowel, “butter”). The prevocalic /r/ is the only case where /r/ is considered a consonant. The other /r/ sounds are known as “r-colored vowels”.
There are a variety of techniques and tips for establishing the /r/ sound:
Elicitation techniques for /r/
Using hand gestures – Hold one hand horizontally to symbolize the tongue, and hold the other hand underneath. Using the hand on top, show the tongue movement necessary to produce /r/. By cupping the hand, you’re showing the tongue tip is up and slightly back.
Shaping /r/ from /l/ – Tell your child to make an /l/ sound. From there, they should slide their tongue along the top of their mouth (hard palate), and this will inevitably turn into the retroflexed tongue position.
Shaping /r/ from /oo/ – Have the child say “oo” as in the word “look.” While saying the “oo” sound, tell the child to move his tongue back and up slowly – Using your hand to show this movement can be helpful!
Shaping /r/ from /z/ – Have the child prolong the “z” sound. Then tell the child to move his/her tongue back slowly while opening the jaw slightly. Remind the child to keep the back sides of the tongue up against the upper teeth.
Using animal sounds (Always model these sounds for the child first.)
- Rooster crowing in the morning, “rrr rrr rrr rrrrrrrrrr”
- Cat purring, “purrrrrr”
- Tiger growl, “grrrrrrr”
Using a silent /k/ – Have the child open their mouth and make a silent /k/. Then have him attempt the growling sound.
Changing jaw position with /l/ – Have the child produce the /l/ sound, and while saying this sound, pull the lower jaw down slowly until he reaches the correct position for /r/ – An adult can pull the jaw down gently if the child is having a difficult time lowering it down slowly
Eliminating the /w/ – If the child is using a /w/ sound for /r/- Tell the child to smile – you can’t make a /w/ sound when you smile!
Other ways to help
- Be a good model – Restate what your child said and say the /r/ correctly.
- Work on discrimination – Say an /r/ word correctly or incorrectly and see if your child can recognize the difference between a “good” /r/ sound and a “could be better” /r/ sound.
- Talk to a certified Speech Language Pathologist (SLP)
When to consult a Speech Language Pathologist
The age range for mastery of the /r/ sound is quite large. Many children master the sound by age five and a half, while others don’t produce it correctly until age seven. A general rule of thumb is that if they aren’t pronouncing it correctly by the first grade, seek advice from a licensed Speech and Language Pathologist.