Speech Sounds

Tongue Positions Used to Make the /R/ Sound

The /r/ sound is tricky for lots of kids. Why is that? There are a few reasons, but a primary one is the unique tongue position required to make this sound. 

The /r/ sound is made using specific movements and positioning of the tongue. And because /r/ is produced solely by the tongue’s position, this makes it much harder to visualize compared to other sounds. For example, with the /b/ sound you can easily see how the lips move. A /th/ sound is also easily visualized; the tongue rests between the teeth. 

For an /r/ production, the tongue has to move in a very specific way that can often be tough to demonstrate to a child. The way that children hear the /r/ sound helps them learn it more than what they’re able to see. This is also why children who are prone to ear infections may later show difficulty with this sound.

Another important factor is tongue tension. The tongue has to hold enough tension in order to produce the /r/ sound. The tongue is actually a muscle, and if it’s not holding the correct position, you’re likely to hear more of an “uh” sound than an /r/ sound. Getting enough tongue tension can often be tricky for kids to learn, but it’s absolutely essential to making that perfect-sounding /r/.

Here’s a fun–or, not so fun–fact. There are two tongue positions that can be used to produce the /r/ sound. These are the bunched and retroflexed tongue positions. What’s important to note is that there is no right or wrong choice: both tongue positions can be used to accurately pronounce the sound. 

However, one of these positions will come more naturally for your child and increase the likelihood that they pronounce /r/ correctly.

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 be kept strong and tense in order to ensure the appropriate “errr” sound is formed. 

For the retroflexed /r/, the back sides of the tongue will touch the inside of the back molars, just like for the bunched /r/. However, the tip of the tongue will curl backward. 

Try saying “errrr” yourself and see what comes naturally for you! 

It may take you a few times before you can tell. You may even need to watch in the mirror, opening your mouth slightly to see exactly how your tongue is moving.

As a bonus challenge, now try slowly saying two different words: “rub” and “hair.” “Rub” is an example of a prevocalic /r/, while “hair” has a vocalic /r/. The /r/ is produced the same way for both of these variations. But the difference with the vocalic /r/–“hair”–is that the tongue has to move to the correct position immediately after pronouncing the vowel. 

That adds a whole new level of complexity for these vocalic combinations! And if that mini exercise was challenging for you, just think how hard it is for your child. Being able to easily visualize the tongue is a big piece to the /r/ production puzzle. 

I like to tell families to keep this little exercise in the back of your mind as you work with your child. It will help you understand a bit of what they’re going through when trying to learn the complexities of a new sound.

So, to recap: What are the key things we learned in this section?

  • The /r/ sound can be tough because of the way it’s produced with the tongue. This makes it harder to visualize and teach compared to other sounds.

  • There are two tongue positions used to make the /r/ sound: the bunched and retroflexed positions. 

  • One of these positions will come more naturally for your child and increase the likelihood that they pronounce /r/ correctly.

When it comes to /r/, there is definitely a lot to learn. But that doesn’t mean your child can’t learn it! With speech therapy support and lots of practice, it is absolutely attainable!

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