Because of the difficulty of producing them correctly and on command, /r/ sounds tend to develop relatively late in a child’s speech development. These sounds are typically misarticulated throughout childhood, with mastery emerging close to seven years of age. Misarticulations can vary widely, but the most common /r/ errors involve /w/ substitutions (e.g., “wabbit” for “rabbit”) or distortions (e.g., “watuh” for “water”).
Why is it so hard to pronounce /r/?
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs), parents, and researchers have found that r can be challenging due to a variety of conditions. In clinical practice, SLPs have found that the motor movement (i.e., correct use and cooperation of lips, teeth, tongue, and airway) for /r/ articulation tends to be the most difficult aspect of proper production. Coordinating all of the articulators used in motor movement can be challenging for a child. For example, problems with airflow modulation can occur when a child unintentionally blocks the back of his or her mouth, causing a distorted production. The object of speech-language therapy is to get those parts moving together! In sessions, SLPs often use a multisensory approach (e.g., verbal, visual, and tactile feedback) to elicit accurate r sounds. Current research is pushing for ultrasound technology so children can have a better view of what is actually going on with their own tongue placement.
How is the /r/ sound made?
When producing accurate /r/ sounds, the two most common ways are:
- Bunched: This r production involves creating a “basket” with one’s tongue.
- Retroflexed: This r production involves having the base of the tongue rise up.
Both manners of producing an r sound involve a variety of components. They require, for example, both the creation of a ridge or hump in the tongue to modulate airflow, as well as contact between the base of the tongue and the upper molars on both sides. Oftentimes, children will produce /r/ sounds with rounded lips (e.g., try saying “red”), which can be an effective teaching strategy, so long as the tongue remains engaged and the initial /r/ does not distort into /w/.
Furthermore, we often take the complexity of /r/ (and many other sounds) for granted. There are a variety of different /r/ sounds to master. In a clinical sense, /r/ sounds are broken down to “prevocalic” (before the vowel), “postvocalic” (after the vowel), and r-blends. Prevocalic (or initial) r sounds are those that begin words (e.g., rain, road, radish). Postvocalic /r/ sounds occur when /r/ is paired with a vowel sound, typically at the middle or end of a word (e.g., bear, bird, tiger). Finally, r-blends involve r following a consonant sound (e.g., brush, drum, frog). It is important to remember, though, that mastery of one of these varieties does not necessarily translate to mastery of them all. A child may struggle with r-blends even though she has no trouble with the word “rare,” or vice versa, or any other combination.
What can parents do to help with /r/ pronunciation?
Parents can monitor their children’s r production throughout early childhood. If a child continues to produce errors as he gets closer to 7 years of age, remediation may be warranted from a licensed speech-language pathologist. SLPs will often provide homework for children to continue practicing between sessions in order to increase the rate of mastery. Strategies such as this can help your child increase his intelligibility!