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Written By Allison Geller
Are you or your child having trouble with the /r/ sound and wondering if you can change it or if you need speech therapy? Difficulty pronouncing the /r/ sound is very common because /r/ is one of the most challenging sounds in the English language to pronounce. This speech problem is known as a rhotacism.
In this article, we will discuss:
1) When is the Right Time to Fix the R Sound?
2) What is the Cause of a Rhotacism?
3) What Are Some Characteristics of a Rhotacism?
4) What is the Prognosis for Improvement?
5) How is a Rhotacism Diagnosed?
6) Why is the /R/ a Difficult Sound to Produce?
7) Examples of /R/ Words
8) How to Treat Problems with the /R/ Sound
9) Tips for Changing the /R/ Sound
10) Rhyming Game for Children
11) More Articulation Games to Help Children with /R/
12) Professional Help with a Speech-Language Pathologist
When is the Right Time to Fix the R Sound?
English has many sounds, but the most common is the “r” sound. This is one of the last sounds that children learn to say. While the age of mastery varies, the /r/ sound is typically learned by 6-7 years old. The /s/ sound is also one of the last sounds to be mastered. Difficulty pronouncing the /s/ sound is also known as a lisp.
It may be appropriate to start r words speech therapy earlier, around age six, if a parent or child considers the sound an issue that needs attention.
Some parents wait for the production of /r/ to correct itself over time rather than seeking speech therapy services for their child; however, help from a speech therapist is needed in many cases. By delaying speech therapy, children may have more challenges fixing the issue. It becomes increasingly difficult to modify the /r/ sound as a child approaches the teenage years.
Children who have trouble forming the /r/ sound may seem less mature than their classmates. If a child’s intelligibility is reduced, it can harm social and academic performance and have far-reaching impacts later in life.
Research shows that it is unlikely for a person who has trouble with the /r/ sound to learn how to produce the sound after high school without speech therapy.
What is the Cause of a Rhotacism?
The cause of a rhoticism is unknown. In some cases, it may be linked to tongue-tie (ankyloglossia). Tongue-tie may limit the range of tongue movements, which is critical for pronouncing /r/.
Another possible reason a person has trouble pronouncing the r sound is a speech sound disorder that affects the mouth and lip placement. Tongue placement for /r/ is very specific and can be complicated to learn.
No matter what the cause, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) can help.
What Are Some Characteristics of a Rhotacism?
Individuals who have difficulty with /r/ typically produce it as a syllabic or vowel-like sound. This makes the word hard to understand and can make other sounds difficult to hear. Some individuals have an issue with mispronunciation of r as l and sometimes r sounds like w.
Some hard r words that may be affected by a rhoticism are rice, right, ride, ring, red, rink, rip, and ranch.
What is the Prognosis for Improvement?
The prognosis is excellent if a person receives early speech therapy services and continues with therapy. If left untreated, children can experience unfavorable effects on their speech intelligibility throughout life.
The most common approach to speech therapy for a rhotacism is known as articulation therapy. In articulation therapy, speech therapists can work with a person to improve or correct speech sounds in a phonological system. This includes /r/.
If the person sounds like they are saying “wabbit” or “wunner” instead of “rabbit” and “runner”, it may be time to get help from a speech therapist. The best thing you can do to help is to find a speech therapist specializing in a rhotacism, especially if the sound has impacted their intelligibility.
It is essential to find the cause of a problem and do not focus only on “fixing” /r/. This will give you the best chance of success.
Do not delay r words speech therapy services because of embarrassment. It is much better for a person to be understood than going undiagnosed.
If other children at school tease your child for sounding different, you must teach your child coping skills and approach the teacher to explain what you are doing to improve your child's speech.
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How is a Rhotacism Diagnosed?
Speech-language pathologists can perform a rhotacism assessment to determine if there is difficulty with the /r/ sound. For this evaluation, speech therapists will review your history and concerns, look at how you produce speech sounds in a word list and observe how you pronounce the /r/ sound in different word positions. The SLP will check the tongue placement for /r/ during your assessment.
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Why is the /R/ a Difficult Sound to Produce?
There are 32 different variations of /r/ (also known as “allophones”). Each allophone is considered a separate and distinct sound. /R/ can occur in different places in a word (beginning, middle and end) and /r/ can be combined with other consonants (e.g. /tr/, /br/, /str/).
The consonant /r/ can occur by itself like “run,” and rhotic vowels such as “ar,” “air,” “eer,” “er,” “or,” “ire,” found in words like “star,” “fair,” “steer,” “feather,” “for,” or “fire.”
Each variation of /r/ can pose a unique challenge because it requires different tongue positions and movements. A person may struggle to pronounce all of these different variations of the /r/ sound or only have a problem with one variation of /r/. For all of these reasons, the /r/ sound is a very tricky sound to correct!
Examples of /R/ Words
PREVOCALIC R WORDS: Rope, Route, Rare, Role, Ramp, Road, Roof, Rent, Relax, Read, Rank, Record, Rate, Rain, Room, Ram
MEDIAL: Peering, Pairing, Teary, Terry, Cheery, Scary, Smeary, Fairy, Carry, Weary, Parry, Parry, Lorry, Pirate, Walrus, Barn, Giraffe Earring, Worm
FINAL: Pour, Sour, Your, Poor, Fair, Tear, Deer, Father, Feather, Mother, Monitor, Creator, Bar, Tar, Far, Pour, Liar, Weather, Brother, Sister
BR-Blends: Brim, Bring, Breed, Bread, Bring, Brief, Brown, Brain, Brake
CR-Blends: Crown, Crawl, Cream, Crop, Crate, Crib, Crab, Crash, Crown, Crow
DR-Blends: Dream, Drip, Drain, Drink, Drop, Drive, Draw, Drama
FR-Blends: Friend, Frame, Free, Frail, Fragile, France, Friday, Fried, Frog, Free, Fruit
GR-Blends: Group, Grown, Ground, Grape, Grain, Grit, Grip, Great
PR-Blends: Price, Proof, Prince, Prince, Pride, Princess, Preach, Practice, Prudent, Pray
TR-Blends: Tree, Track, Trip, Truth, Trolley, Train, Troop, Trap
How to Treat Problems with the /R/ Sound
The speech therapy plan will depend on age and individual circumstances, but it can include:
A thorough assessment to determine why the individual may have difficulty producing /r/ and the other sounds or syllable patterns that may be an issue. During the evaluation, the speech pathologist will identify the exact nature of the problem with the /r/ production.
/R/ Therapy may involve any of the following strategies:
Awareness: Teaching a general understanding of the articulators (i.e., tongue, lips, teeth, and the hard and soft palate). Flavored tongue depressors or small lollipops may be used to bring attention to the areas that need to be used.
Visual Cues: Visual cues can be a helpful tool in learning where the tongue should be placed to improve /r/ production. A mirror or a tongue model may be used.
Coordination and Strengthening Exercises: If there is jaw instability, some exercises may be introduced to coordinate and strengthen jaw and tongue movements. The SLP may also work on tongue placement for r with tongue exercises for speech articulation.
Drill: Once you are successful with /r/ production in a certain context, your speech therapist would increase the complexity by teaching the /r/ in other contexts and positions.
Tips for Changing the /R/ Sound
Let’s discuss how to modify the /r/ sound. First, identify some words that contain the /r/ sound that you or your child can produce correctly. Use these R words as a warm-up for your practice session.
You need to repeat the same sound accurately to learn to produce it consistently. This approach is key in helping to produce the sound correctly. You only want to work on one type of /r/ at a time. For example, you would want to master “ar” words like “star” or “far” before moving onto “ir” words like “fire” or “tire.”
If you think your /r/ sounds more like /w/, look in a mirror to use visual cues and carefully observe the lips, teeth, and jaw to see if you are using a rounded lip shape. Make sure that your lips are apart and your top and bottom teeth are lightly together when you practice and avoid the rounded lip shape if possible.
The tongue movement should be with the tongue flattened out in the back of the mouth and toward the upper part of the mouth, known as the hard palate. The sides of the tongue may scrape on the inside of the top teeth when you make an /r/ sound.Some people produce the /r/ sound with the tongue tip down. These visual cues can be highly beneficial.
When /r/ sounds like “uh, ” then it is likely that the back of the tongue position is not stabilized between the back molars. Sometimes saying /k/ or /g/, holding the sounds out for a few seconds, and then sliding into /r/ can help with placing the tongue in the right spot for /r/. /K/ and /g/ sounds are made in the back of the mouth, which helps get the tongue closer to the correct position to make a good /r/. Practice saying aloud words like “green,” “creep,” “greedy,” and “creek” while using these techniques.
Sometimes connecting /r/ with the vowel sound “eee” can have a similar effect because it helps raise the back portion of the tongue. Say the vowel “eee,” hold it for a few seconds and then combine it into an /r/ sound. You can repeat this exercise with another vowel sound.
It may help to listen to someone produce the words accurately to help provide you with verbal cues as well as a visual cue to start practicing.
Rhyming Game for Children
Put numbered index cards face down on a table, and let your child draw one. Ask them to say the word and then find another word that rhymes with it from the other cards on the table. If you have only one card, ask your child to think of any words that rhyme. This can be a fun way to practice wordplay in a game setting.
If you have more than one card, say any words that rhyme with the original word, and then see if your child can think of another word that rhymes with all of them before he draws his next card. For example, if someone drew the card with the word “hat,” you can say words like “cat” and then see if your child can think of another word that rhymes with both of those.
This game also works well in an individual setting where the parent asks questions that stimulate thinking and practicing rhyming skills (e.g., “What words rhyme with dog?”).
You can also play by asking your child to think of any word that rhymes with the original word. For example, if someone drew the card with the word “hat,” you could say things like “mat” and then see if your child can think of another word that rhymes with both of those.
The focus is on tea the /r/ sound, but the game also works from an auditory processing perspective and helps with listening skills. If you are playing this game in a group setting, you can give out a prize for the most words that rhyme.
If your child tends to be impulsive, it can help to make a set of rules (e.g., you want to say as many words that rhyme with the original word as possible; you can take one card at a time; etc.) so that people don’t start saying every word they hear and lose their focus on practicing the /r/ sound.
If you have a few people who come to your house or visit another person, this game can be played with picture cards. Ensure that you have enough index cards on hand if someone draws the jackpot card (e.g., hat, mat, bat). You may also want to provide a small piece of paper and a writing utensil for each person to write down their words.
Although this game can be played with children or adults, it works best when you can sit next to the person who is drawing so that you can help them if they need assistance sounding out the words.
If the words are not easy to sound out, you can also prompt your child with hints. This game works best when at least one or two people sitting across from each other are good spellers and have excellent auditory memory skills.
This game can be used as a warm-up activity before doing articulation therapy or speech therapy activities. It is also good for general practice or group activity, but it can take longer to play because more cards are involved.
You can make this game more interesting by turning off the lights and playing in the dark. This makes it more challenging and forces people involved to use their ears to listen for words.
This game can be played in an individual setting as well. In this case, you could use the magnetic letters to make a set of cards for each word. The idea would then be to practice spelling out words that rhyme with the original word.
If you are playing this game in a group activity and have some children who are good at spelling, you can also make this game more interesting by letting them use their magnetic letters to sound out words that rhyme with the original word.
Depending on your child's age, this game can be modified to make it more challenging (e.g., you want to get rid of all the cards in your hand; you have to state a word that rhymes with the original word every time; etc.).
Although this game is designed for children and adults, it can also be played with preschoolers. In this case, you could draw pictures of the words you are working on and put them in an envelope with your child. Then, let them pull out cards while practicing saying things that rhyme with the original word (e.g., hat–pat; bat–mat; mat–fat; etc.).
More Articulation Games to Help Children with /R/
Here are a few games that you can do with your child to help practice the /r/ sound:
Rhyming Words: Rhyming words is an old game that works well for practicing the /r/ sound. Here are some examples: bat, cat; car, jar; and rat, tar. You can use these words to help your child practice the /r/ sound in sentences, too.
(R)eally and (R)ight: Mentioning your child’s name, or a family member’s name, can help train the tongue to form /r/ correctly. This is called “cueing.” Using the words “really” and “right” in practice sessions is also a good practice.
Rhyming Poems: Repeat poems that rhyme (like “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”) to help your child learn how to pronounce /r/ in fun rhymes correctly. You can make up your own versions, too.
Blends Game: You can use written materials such as flashcards to practice blending and segmenting syllables in this game. For example, say cat and rat and have your child repeat them back one at a time. Then say cat rat together and have your child repeat them back to you. You can do the same thing with far, jar, tar, star, and so on.
Books with R sounds: Look for picture books that have lots of r’s in them. For example, there are tons of Dr. Seuss books with a lot of r’s and other books that share the same characteristics (i.e., rhyming words, simple sentences, large font size).
Professional Help with a Speech-Language Pathologist
Changing the way you produce an /r/ requires consistent practice over time and a lot of patience. If you don’t see improvement in the /r/ sound while working on your own, you may need speech therapy.
Connected Speech Pathology has a team of specialized speech therapists who can help both adults and children produce the /r/ sound correctly through online speech therapy.
We'll choose a speech-language pathologist from our team that is exceptionally educated in articulation difficulties. A speech therapist will then complete an extensive articulation evaluation.
Goals will be highly personalized, allowing for greater real-life communication.
Once you've discovered the problem, it's simply a matter of practice. Speech-language pathologists utilize a variety of approaches to improve articulation skills and establish good habits.
Attending weekly speech therapy and daily /R/ sound practice outside of the meetings is a key component of progress. We would be happy to help you or your child achieve your communication goals!
About the Author
Allison Geller is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and the owner of Connected Speech Pathology. She obtained her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Florida in Speech-Language Pathology. Allison has practiced speech therapy in a number of settings including telepractice, acute care, outpatient rehabilitation, and private practice. She has worked extensively with individuals across the lifespan including toddlers, preschoolers, school-aged children, and adults. She specializes in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of a variety of communication disorders including receptive/expressive language disorders, articulation disorders, voice disorders, fluency disorders, brain injury, and swallowing disorders.
Allison served as the clinical coordinator of research in aphasia in the Neurological Institute at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. She is on the Board of Directors for the Corporate Speech Pathology Network (CORSPAN), a Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT) certified clinician, and a proud Family Empowerment Scholarship/Step-Up For Students provider. Allison is passionate about delivering high quality-effective treatment remotely because it’s convenient and easy to access. What sets us apart from other online speech therapy options is—Allison takes great care to hire the very best SLPs from all over the country.
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