Speech Sounds

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: 

  • Run

  • Rain 

  • Read 

  • Right

  • Rome

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

  • Butter

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.

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