Why the /R/ Sound is So Challenging for Children
Of all the sounds in the English language, why does /r/ seem to trip up so many kiddos? There are a few reasons, but they can be broadly categorized into two:
the variety of /r/ sounds that exist,
and the unique tongue position required to make this sound
Let’s start with the variation of /r/ sounds. What would you think if I told you there was more than one /r/ sound?
There’s not one, there’s not two, there are actually 32 different /r/ sounds! Have I lost you yet? Don’t worry–let me explain!
The /r/ sound that we often think of is what speech therapists refer to as a prevocalic /r/. This means it’s an /r/ sound that comes before a vowel. Examples of prevocalic /r/ words are:
However, there is an entirely other world of /r/ sounds out there: vocalic /r/ combinations. This is when the /r/ sound comes after a vowel. For example:
“a-r” as in “star”
“a-i-r” as in “hair”
“e-a-r” as in “hear”
“e-r” as in “sister”
“o-r” as in “pour”
“i-r-e” as in “tired”
Notice how each time the /r/ sound is combined with a vowel, it’s actually pronounced slightly differently within the word? Try saying each of these out loud to yourself and you’ll quickly realize all the different variations. This can cause a world of headache!
But wait, we’re not done!
Throw in the fact that most of these vowel combinations can be placed in different positions within a word, and you have a whole new level of challenge for little ones! Whether the /r/ sound comes in the beginning, middle, or final part of the word can affect how it’s produced. Just listen:
Bright, sounds different than
Tart, which sounds different than
And this brings us to the final type of /r/ production–what we call /r/ blends. An /r/ blend is a consonant followed immediately by an /r/. These are sound combinations like
“br” as in brush
“fr” as in frog
“cr” as in crown
“dr” as in draw
“pr” as in prep
“tr” as in trail
There’s clearly a ton of room for error with the /r/ sound. But here’s the good news. Your child likely has one variation of the /r/ sound that’s easier for them to produce than others, when they’re given support. That variation can act as a key to unlock the door to all the others.
A speech therapist can help you identify where these /r/ errors are occurring and put together a treatment plan tailored for your child’s needs.
So let’s recap a few of the key points we just covered:
One of the reasons /r/ is so challenging is because of the variety of different /r/ sounds that exist.
There are three main types. The prevocalic /r/ comes before a vowel, like in run.
In vocalic /r/ combinations, the /r/ sound comes after a vowel, as in star.
And then there are /r/ blends, which are sound combinations like frog and brush.