How Children Learn the /R/ Sound
It’s important to understand that when children learn to produce a new sound, it won’t show up perfectly in their conversational speech right away.
There is a very big difference between a child being able to say a sound by itself, versus saying the sound in single words, then eventually in sentences and conversation.
The more words and sounds we use in our connected speech, the more challenging a specific new sound can become. This is because we now have more words and sounds to think about and coordinate. For a child just beginning /r/ practice, it can be quite tricky to identify all the /r/ sounds that may come up in a big, long sentence.
And on top of that, children who need to practice the /r/ sound have likely been saying the sound incorrectly for a long time. Their incorrect production has become a learned motor pattern. In other words–it’s become a habit. Their mouth is used to moving a certain way for that sound. And now they have to train their brain to notice each time the sound is spoken, and train their muscles to move in a different way.
That’s not only hard work for a kid–it’s hard work for anyone! Speech patterns can be tricky to unlearn. So it’s important to go step by step to help your child learn their new motor pattern.
That’s why one of the most important things I explain to families is that learning how to produce a new sound needs to follow a structured process. This process informs how speech therapists teach new sounds, and how children should practice these sounds to make the most progress.
When kids start to learn a new sound, they should practice that sound by itself. This is called the isolation level. When they master that level, they move on to the next, and the complexity slowly builds.
Let’s say your child was working on prevocalic /r/ sounds–when the /r/ is placed before a vowel. Think rose, run, or rain. Here’s the typical order of speech progression.
We start with the isolation level, practicing just the /r/ sound by itself: “errrr.”
Then we move to the syllable level, practicing the /r/ sound when it’s paired with a vowel: ro, ra.
Next is the word level, pronouncing single words that contain an /r/. It’s usually best to start with single-syllable words like run and rope.
Then we move to the phrase level, taking a target /r/ word and using it in a short phrase. For instance, The boy ran.
Once your child has mastered phrases, the next step is practicing full sentences,about 5-7 words long.
And finally, when a child can say a target sound in sentences, it’s time to move on to conversation level. What’s different about conversational speech is that it’s fast-paced, with many words spoken consecutively. You have to think and speak on your feet, which can make it harder to concentrate on speech sound production. Let’s face it–when your child is telling you a funny story, it’s not easy for them to pause and really think about the sounds they’re making.
As your child masters each level, it sets the foundation for them to move onto the next. Generally, speech therapists hope to see children say their /r/ sounds accurately 80-90% of the time before they’re ready for the next level. Think of it like training for a marathon. You don’t start out by running the full 26 miles on day one. You slowly build upon your progress each day and week as you train. The same concept applies to speech sound development.
Now that we’ve covered the typical progress of /r/ sound development, I want to call out two really important points.
The first is that this progression will need to be practiced for all types of /r/ sounds. That’s true whether the sounds come before a vowel, after a vowel, or are blended, as in words like “break” or “frog.”
The second thing to remember is that every child is different! Some children have no problems with their prevocalic /r/ sounds, but struggle with vocalic. Other kiddos are the complete opposite! And some kiddos work on /r/ words for months but, once they finally nail them, they breeze through to conversation easily!
So while there is a generally recommended process, there’s no magic formula. What’s important is identifying where your child needs extra support and working with a speech therapist to create a treatment plan tailored to their needs.
Let’s take a minute to recap the key points we just covered:
When a child is learning a new sound, they can’t jump from simply making the sound to using it in conversation.
Learning how to produce and use a new sound is a structured process–a series of levels that children need to master to keep building their skills.
Children may progress in different ways, so a personalized plan is best.
As you work with your child, remember to be patient with them and practice daily. All this hard work will pay off!