The Tricky “R” Sound

It’s not unusual to hear a 3 year old talk about “wabbits” and “wainbows,” but when does the /r/ sound become an articulation concern?

Speech sound errors can be developmental in nature and, with maturity, some children may grow out of it.  Other children, due to various factors such as oral motor delays, past or present hearing difficulties, or other unknown causes, may keep using these immature speech sound patterns as they get older.

According to Goldman Fristoe Test of Articulation-2, a standardized test commonly used to assess articulation skills, 85% of children master /r/ and /r/ blends by age 6.  As speech language pathologists, we typically wait until this age to determine if errors are developmental in nature or true disorders.  We may choose, however, to address /r/ sound errors at an earlier age, depending on the child’s overall speech intelligibility and other factors.

/R/ is a complicated sound due to the various oral motor structures involved and due to the many ways in which /r/ appears in words.

Unlike earlier developing sounds like “b” or “p”, which are made primarily using our lips and our voice, the “r” sound requires proper placement of the lips and tongue.  The /r/ sound can also vary greatly, depending on where it occurs in the word.  Some children may be able to say prevocalic ‘r’ sounds (those occurring before a vowel, as in “rabbit”) with a correct “r” sound, but have difficulty with r blends (br-, tr-, dr-, etc) or vocalic r sounds.  The vocalic r occurs when r is between vowels (as in cherry) or after a vowel (as in car or teacher). 

Correct oral motor placement is key to /r/ sound production.  Most people make the /r/ sound in one of two ways – with their tongue bunched or retroflexed (curled).  A bunched /r/ sound occurs when the middle of the tongue is bunched in the center of the mouth and a retroflexed /r/ sound requires the tongue tip to be slightly curled up and back in the mouth.  With both methods, the sides of the tongue are lightly touching the back molars. 

Here are some tips and techniques you can use to help your child become more proficient with that tricky /r/ sound:

Demonstrate correct tongue placement – show your child how their tongue should be tight and bunched when making an ‘r’ sound – this can be done using a play dough “tongue” or simply a hand gesture to show that the tongue is bunched and the tongue tip slightly back.  You can also use peanut butter, a lollipop, or other sticky flavorful food on the top back molars, to help your child “find” where the their tongue should be touching.

Work from an /l/ sound – Have your child make an /l/ sound.  Then, instruct him/her to slide the tongue back along the roof of the mouth while vocalizing.  This will help get the tongue into position for the retroflex /r/ sound.

Use silly sounds to encourage /r/ - make the sound of a cat purring (“purrrrrrrrrr”), a tiger growling (“grrrrrrrrrrr”), or a rooster crowing (“rrr rrr rrr rrrrr rrrrrrrrrrr”) to practice the /r/ sound

Silent /k/ - If your child is able to make a /k/ sound, have him/her get the tongue into position for this sound (tight and far back in the mouth), and then growl!

Get rid of that /w/ - If your child is making a /w/ instead of an /r/ sound, ask him/her to smile when making the /r/.  This encourages the lips to be drawn back instead of rounded, getting closer to a good /r/ sound.