R is one of the trickiest sounds to master. This is because there are so many different ways it can be produced, depending upon which letters it is combined with. There are 32 variations of /r/ in all word positions in single words, phrases, and sentences! Variations include: /r/ at the beginning of the word, “air”, “ar”, “or”, “ear”, “er”, /r/ blends and “rl” in all word positions. No wonder it so many kids need help with these sounds!
Each variation requires a slightly different tongue position so they must be treated separately, which is why speech therapy for /r/ can last longer than for other sounds. The good news is that your child likely does not have all 32 variations missing. We look for words that they can produce already and build from there. We also need to see what their oral mechanisms (tongue, lips, jaw) are doing and see what your child’s natural tongue position is already doing.
Two Tongue Positions
There are two different ways to produce /r/: retroflexed (flip) tongue and mountain tongue. The retroflexed tongue flips up and back so that the tip of the tongue touches the border of the hard/soft palate. The bunched /r/ is when the back of the tongue lifts like a mountain to touch the same border in the palate. If the tongue has no natural preference then it may be easier for the child to learn the retroflexed version. Since I am a “both/and” person, I still have the child work all the muscles necessary to build the mountain, even if they don’t use them in the retroflex (flip) /r/. It is so important to build, engage and sustain as many muscles and coordinated movements as possible in our tongue.
Building New Motor Memory
It is very important to use an oral motor protocol to support the new placement connections being made with the tongue, lips and jaw as new sounds are learned. As with any new activity, we must build new neuromotor connections and need the repetition both with and without sound until they are mastered. Rewrite the motor memory so the child practices how it feels and sounds when they are doing it the right way. Do it slower, then faster, with many, many repetitions.
Auditory Feedback and Discrimination
Have kids listen to their own speech productions and hear the differences between /r/ sounds that are more and less accurate. They can listen to themselves saying the sounds with a toobaloo so they can hear it clearly. Often times once the child can hear and feel what a correct /r/ sounds like, they get much better at producing /r/ in other contexts or at least discerning when they are making correct, partially correct, or incorrect productions during practice. You can also record them on your phone, or other recording device, and play back their productions alongside an accurate production so they hear the contrast of a correct and incorrect production.
The KARLA (whisper) technique is when a child alternates “ka” and “la” in such a way via a protocol, and with eventual whispering of “la”, that the final production is “kar”. See the paired stimulation sheet here. Kids may need help getting rid of the “la” sound, so they can just “get ready for it” but don’t actually say it. The toobaloo that we mentioned above also helps kids hear when they have hit the right sound.
Eureka and smile method works on the “er” sound by making a “y” sound before the “er” sound. This can help because it puts your tongue towards the top of your mouth, getting it ready for a good “er” sound. I use this method to help kids discover where their tongue is placed. I also use EE→ ER to help kids feel their tongue rise and then slide back on the rails of the back teeth. They can feel when it disconnects and the tongue drops. I tell kids to smile when possible for some of the vowelized /r/ sounds. This is a natural way to lift the tongue, so that it more closely approximates correct placement.
Animal sounds are a fun way for kids to practice making the /r/ sound as the tongue naturally searches for the correct placement. Sometimes it happens automatically and then this becomes a way for them to feel and hear when they’ve got it. They can practice growling like a bear “GRRR”, roaring like a lion “ROAR”, or pretending to be a pirate “ARGH”, to work on their /r/ sounds in a fun and entertaining way. This can work well with younger kids, but the older ones are likely to be way too embarrassed!
Using ER to help other vowelized R’s works well if your child has the ER position correct. because “er” is technically in every other vocalic position. This list can also be used to see which sounds are being produced correctly, and in what positions of the word (beginning, middle, end).
ER er, ur, ir
This cue can also help students produce a normal-sounding vocalic.
Use those cues! Visual, verbal and tactile cues help kids elicit, acquire, use and maintain the sounds. While the cues are used throughout the therapeutic process to varying degrees, I tend to lean on one more than another at different stages in the child’s learning process.
For every /r/ that is coming into shape, choose one /r/ variation (in one word position-initial, medial, or final) that they are able to do, even if just starting to approximate.
Work with what they’ve got and build from there. If the child can only do “er” medial words, then do all the “er” medial words first. You can try and stretch them to see if they can do “er” in the initial or final position after that; some kids can and some kids can’t.
Break up the word so that you can get the /r/ into words with an ending consonant or in multisyllabic words. Ar-tt (art), ar-mm (arm), ar-cade, ar-tist. Initially they need to put the two parts together with a big pause so they can practice their new motor movements and more closely approximate the sound. In the beginning this helps kids perfect that /r/ in longer words. After they produce it correctly with pauses and a slower rate, then have them practice closer and closer to their typical speed of speech.
We have to start small and simple, building up the length and complexity over time. After the sound is elicited, the phoneme is stablized, and the child has mastered the syllable level, they move on to words, sentences, stories and conversations (structured and then unstructured).
Practice at the word level opens up a whole new area of fun and creativity with words and games. You can use this free R Wordlist for practice or purchase online practice games or picture cards for /r/ at the beginning, middle and end of a word at Boom Learning or at Teachers Pay Teachers.
You can make silly sentences, play around with tongue twisters, or make single sentences with /r/ while also focusing on building grammar and spelling skills. You can also purchase materials at Boom Learning and Teachers Pay Teachers, and also on apps from Little Bee Speech, and Virtual Speech Center’s Articulation Carnival.
One of my favorite apps to use for stories is Little Stories Pro from Little Bee Speech. You can also use any books your child likes to read or make up stories. Read books with your kids that have lots of /r/ words in them. Slowing down and emphasizing these sounds will help them to grasp the sound. You can also remind them where and how the sound is made and either have them say the words after you, or read the words themselves depending upon their age and reading level.
At the conversation level we really see how the child is doing in connected speech. You can start with structured conversations about their daily routine and what happened in school or with other activities, and then move onto helping them to recognize and make corrections during more spontaneous speech. Conversations can also happen during storytime and reading books.
In order to see improvement, it’s important to for your child to practice regularly. They won’t see much progress if they only work on these exercises during their speech therapy sessions.
There is a lot to do but we are here to help and make it as easy and fun as possible, including the home program!
At Vibe, our speech therapists are trained to work with children of every age, and in every facet of speech and language. We are experts in our field. The clinical and personal relationship we have with you is at the core of everything we do. From the resources we bring to support growth in communication, to the highly individualized therapy sessions. We offer collaborative partnerships with other providers, family and caregivers and we are committed to exceeding your expectations. We look forward to helping your child bring their best self into the world!
Contact Vibe Speech Therapy to learn more about how we can help you!