Tips and Techniques to Help Your Child Improve Their /R/ Sound
Today we’ll cover techniques you can practice with your child at home to improve their /r/ sound.
Keep in mind, if your child is 5 or older, this work will need to be supported by a speech-language pathologist. And these are just a sampling of the many valuable techniques that a speech therapist uses. Different techniques will work better for different children at different ages. But these are a good place to start. And best of all, you can easily incorporate them at home, as part of your everyday routine.
First of all, as we discussed, one of the first–and most important–things you should do is have your child listen to you saying the /r/ sound. Spend a few minutes each day saying the /r/ sound correctly sometimes, and incorrectly others. After each model, ask your child if you said the sound right or wrong. You can also use language that seems less negative, if that feels best for your child. Try “correct” and “incorrect,” or “new” and “old.”
Hopefully your child can easily tell you the correct answer. If they seem to be struggling, it’s important to spend more time in this area. A child needs to be able to identify a correct versus incorrect /r/ in order to self-correct their own /r/ productions. It may seem a bit tiring to work on this over and over–but I promise it’s more than worth it. You’re helping them build the foundation needed for this new skill!
Once your child is able to identify the difference, have them try to imitate just the “errr” sound after you.
Direct them to watch how your lips and tongue move. Show them that your lips don’t make a round shape, like for the /w/ sound. Open your mouth slightly so they can see how your tongue is positioned.
It may help your child to use a mirror to watch how their own lips and tongue are moving.
If your child is struggling to produce a good /r/ sound, spend some time reviewing the two different tongue positions: bunched and retroflexed. Don’t forget–your child can use whichever position feels most natural and produces the right sound.
As a reminder, for the bunched production, the tongue moves in a high position toward the back of the mouth. The sides of the back of the tongue should be touching the insides of the back molars. The tongue should also be kept strong and tense in order to ensure the “errr” sound is formed.
For the retroflexed /r/, again, the back sides of the tongue touch the inside of the back molars, just like for the bunched /r/. However, the tip of the tongue curls backward.
In speech therapy sessions, we sometimes use a tactile cue to help younger children understand what part of the tongue should be touching their molars. You can try having your child stick out their tongue. Then, gently brush the back sides with a food item they can tolerate, such as a lollipop, or something sticky like peanut butter. Some kids benefit from this extra input to connect the dots of what their tongue needs to do.
Here’s another technique that works for some kiddos. It uses the bunched position. Have your child produce an "eeeee" sound. Then tell them to slowly move into the "errr" sound. It will sound like this: "eeee-eerrrr." By producing the "eeee" sound, your child will gain the necessary tongue tension. You can then tell them to "scoot their tongue back.” This quick movement should elicit a correct /r/ sound!
You may need to use some kind of visual to better explain these tongue positions. You can demonstrate the two positions by using your hand to show what the tongue should be doing. You could also have some fun by making a model of the tongue. Play-doh works great, and your kiddo will have a blast creating it with you!
If you’re still not hearing a correct /r/ sound, regardless of tongue position, try these tips:
Remind your child to keep their tongue “tight” and “tense” as they hold it in the correct position. There has to be a lot of tension in the tongue for the /r/ to sound correct. The tongue can’t be loose and floppy in the mouth. If it is, you’ll hear more of an “uh” sound. We often mimic this “tension” with our body language during practice.
For both positions, the tongue also needs to be high enough in the mouth. You may want to tell your child to make sure the back sides of their tongue are touching the top back molars. That’s where that tactile cue with a lollipop or peanut butter can be helpful!
Another helpful tip is to make sure your child is working at the appropriate /r/ level. Remember the stages of complexity we talked about–isolation level all the way up to conversation level? It’s important to not move through this progression before your child is ready.
For instance, if your child is struggling with using /r/ in phrases or sentences, they may not have mastered using the /r/ in words yet. We’re looking for that 90% accuracy level before progressing. Skipping ahead or “leapfrogging” steps can actually set your child back. Think of how it might feel if you just learned how to cartwheel and then were suddenly asked to do a backflip–confusing and potentially frustrating. When it comes to speech practice, slow and steady wins the race!
Finally, here’s one last technique that I’d love to share–and one that I’m confident your child will think is a lot of fun!
Try to come up with a name for the /r/ sound that’s different from, well, “the /r/ sound.”
Think of some other sounds that sound similar to an /r/. Maybe a growling dog- “errrrr,” or even squeaky tires–“errrr! errrr!”
If you happen to be working on the vocalic /ar/ sound, my favorite name for this one is pretending to be a pirate–“arrrrr!”
For children who are learning /r/ production, their /r/ error is probably pretty ingrained. When they hear the phrase “Say your /r/ sound!” their tongue and mouth will want to move in the same way they always have. This is why they keep ending up with an /r/ error.
When we refer to the /r/sound by a different name, like “the pirate sound” or “the squeaky tire sound,” we are essentially tricking your little one’s mind into bypassing their typical motor pattern for /r/, and establishing a new, correct motor pattern.
So try out different names for the /r/ sound and see what resonates with your child. It doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as it’s helpful! And again, keep in mind–If your child is at least 4 years old and their /r/ sound isn’t improving over time, it’s a good idea to seek an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist.
Let’s take a minute to recap a few of the key points we just discussed:
Before anything else, your child needs to be able to tell the difference between correct and incorrect /r/ sounds.
You may need to use a cue or a visual to show your child the right tongue positions for an /r/ sound.
Make sure your child is working at the right /r/ level. It’s important not to skip levels or move too quickly.
Finally, come up with a unique name for the /r/ sound. It’ll help your child form a new habit for pronouncing this tricky sound.