Oh /r/….it’s a later developing sound that can be so tricky to get right! A lot of persistent speech sound disorders include challenges with /r/ production, and so for SLPs, having as many tricks up your sleeve to elicit the sound as possible will definitely help when treating /r/ speech errors. Here are 20 tips to try when /r/ just isn’t sounding quite right.
Why is /r/ Such a Hard Sound to Make?
In American English, we produce a couple of different variations of /r/. First, there’s consonantal /r/, which is the sound that occurs at the start of words like “rabbit” or a stressed syllable like in “arrive.” Second, there’s /r/ after a vowel, which operates a little differently, and we refer to this as vocalic /r/ or a rhotic/ “r” colored vowel. Some kids have an easier time producing /r/ as a consonant, or following some but not all vowels. Often, we have to teach kids to produce all these different variations of /r/, which can make the therapy process take a little longer.
Second, there are two different ways to make an /r/ sound, and both are perfectly acceptable among English speakers. In the first, retroflex /r/, the tongue tip is held slightly curled backwards. In the second, bunched /r/, the tongue tip is down and the entire tongue in bunched up in the back of the mouth. In both versions of /r/, the tongue has to have enough “lingual tension” or “rhotic tension” to sound like /r/, and the lateral sides of the posterior tongue are up.
We’ll break these tips down by category—ways to improve placement, and ways to improve tension, because often the two both need attention in treatment.
10 Tips to Improve Placement of Articulation for /r/
- Sound shaping from “ah” to teach “ar.” Read a whole post about how to use this method!
- Use /gr/ and /kr/ words as a facilitating context. Make sure there’s no “schwa” inserted (e.g. “g-uh-reat”) because that defeats the purpose!
- Sound shaping from “sh” or “zh”—start with an “sh” or “zh” sound and check that the lateral sides of the tongue are up and contacting the teeth. Then, keeping the tongue up, slide it back until it hits the back molars.
- Use tongue depressors or a toothbrush to provide tactile/touch input to the gums just behind the back molars. If the back lateral segments of the tongue are not consistently contacting this target area, the resulting sound will lose accuracy. Touch this target gently with a tongue depressor/tooth brush so kids know where they’re aiming.
- Use visualization—“Imagine your tongue is moving diagonally up and back to contact that (physical target) above your head. Try to touch your tongue to that target, making sure the sides are still feeling your upper molars the whole time.”
- Combine visualization and tactile input—place your hand on the back of the child’s head and ask them to try and pull the back sides of their tongue all the way back to where your hand is.
- Use sound shaping from voiced “th”—have the child say voiced “th”and quickly pull their tongue all the way back to say “ther.”
- Use gravity—If the child is struggling with getting the elevated lateral segments of the tongue back far enough, have them try laying on their back and repeating the same sequence that was getting close.
- Don’t forget the lip rounding! For most /r/ variations, there is partial lip rounding of the lower lip. Not having this component can affect the accuracy of the sound.
- Make sure they know all of the needed vocabulary! There are many steps in how to make /r/ and “er.” Once something is working, make sure they can tell you the steps back so that they can practice between sessions, and pick up where they left off from one session to another.
10 Tips to Improve Lingual Tension for /r/
- Have kids squeeze their hands when attempting the /r/ sound
- Ask kids to modify how much tension they’re using by squeezing and releasing different muscle groups. Talk about how we can control how much tension we use when we move our muscles.
- Have kids practice lingual tension with a tongue depressor—press up gently with the tip of the tongue, then press us hard. Next, try seeing if you can press up gently with the back of the tongue, then press up hard.
- Modify tension in the lower lip. Alternate pursing the lower lip gently, then squeezing the bottom lip with effort/tension. (check that jaw anterior movement doesn’t coincide with lip tension)
- Explain how placement and tension work together. If you wanted to push a boulder off a hill, you have to 1) place your hands on a good spot to push and 2) push really hard! One without the other (like pushing against the ground, or putting your hands on the boulder without pushing) won’t budge the rock. You’ve got to do both at the same time, and it’s the same for “r.”
- Place your hand on the back of the child’s head and tell them to try and push your hand back with their “er” sound.
- Have kids combine moving both arms above their head, with clenched fists, while they move their tongue up and back. Squeeze all the moving muscles.
- Push against the desk or pull up on the chair.
- Build self-monitoring with identifying clinician error/correct production and self-productions across a spectrum of “very tired” /r/s to “very strong” /r/s.
- Try /r/ + a high front vowel to help with lingual tension plus lateral spread of the tongue.
These 20 tips can help elicit /r/ and “er” for the first time. Once kids can make the /r/ sound correctly, they’re ready to start mass practice for building motor automaticity for correct /r/ productions in words, phrases, and sentences.