Why the /r/ Phoneme is so difficult to crack

By Christine Ristuccia, SLP

Conversations with hundreds of clinicians that work with all grade levels of articulation students confirm that remediating the /r/ phoneme can be one of the most frustrating of all of the speech-language pathology tasks.Why? Because in traditional articulation intervention, evaluation and treatment procedures for /r/ do not consider all the allophones of /r/.  All of the vocalic /r/s (e.g., ar, er, or) are grouped into one category, called “vocalic r” instead of being recognized as individual allophones.

However, sometimes a student can say one vocalic /r/ (e.g., “or” in Orville) but not another (e.g., “ar” in car). That means it’s important to do a comprehensive evaluation, which consider all of the allophones of /r/ to figure out which of the sounds the student can and cannot say. By evaluating the individual allophones and then remediating them specifically, you can zero in on a particular error pattern.

Photo credit: mommyspeechtherapy.com

The /r/ phoneme itself can also be so difficult for students because of its extremely flexible nature. Its gliding nature tends to make it difficult to predict and pronounce. Adding to the complex nature of /r/ is the fact that /r/-controlled vowels are really comprised of two sounds, the vowel plus /r/. Thus, students attempting to master /r/ are faced with the difficult task of remembering to pronounce the vowel and making the correct pronunciation for that particular /r/ in need.

In addition, the lack of a clear strategy or methodology for therapists to follow limits therapeutic success while increasing frustration levels for both the instructor and the student. Based on discussions and input from hundreds of therapists across the country as well as my own hands-on experiences, I’ve developed a straightforward phonological approach to /r/ remediation that is efficient, comprehensive and effective.

Phonetically, /r/ consists of eight variations: /ar/, /er/, /or/, /air/, /ear/, /ire/, /rl/, and prevocalic or initial /r/. Each variation has a distinct intonation and requires slightly different oral-motor abilities to produce the correct sound.

To illustrate the complexity of /r/, consider how the phoneme /r/ in the word “car” is pronounced differently from the word “for” or the word “butter.” “Car” is an /ar/ word in the final word position, whereas “for” and “butter” are /or/ and /er/ final words, respectively. Consider how mouth positioning for the preceding vowel differs for each sound. Spelling, however, is not necessarily a definitive clue to pronunciation. Consider how the final /r/ phoneme in the word “anchor” is pronounced the same as the /r/ phoneme in the word “butter.” Phonetically, they are both /er/ final words despite the spelling differences.

If you go one step further and break down the eight variations into initial, medial and final word positions and take into account some word limitations, it is revealed that there are a total of 21 types of /r/. This separation of the different types of /r/ is the cornerstone of the phonological strategy to remediate /r/. Since /r/ can be difficult to master, this strategy simplifies and targets only the pronunciation of affected areas for the student.

The phonetic strategy is based on several key principles:

  • A proper baseline evaluation
  • Targeting only the /r/ phonemes and word position in need of improvement
  • Targeting the phonemes and word position in a logical order (easiest to most difficult, visual to non-visual)
  • Repetition of a single targeted phoneme and word position until mastered

Applying the phonetic methodology of breaking down /r/ by vowel combinations and targeting the vowel combination in need with perfect practice brings order and more certainty into the remediation process. Frustrations are reduced and success is increased.

For more information on this topic, you may also find this presentation helpful: Got /r/ Problems? A Phonemic Approach to /r/ Remediation™.

2 Comments

  1. I am currently working with a 10 year old student who has mastered the prevocalic /r/ and /r/ blends. Following the teaching methodology of entire world of r, we are now working on air in the initial position. My student understands the tongue position for the “ay-er” sound but is still producing it incorrectly. It seems that she is lacking tongue tension, how do you instruct someone to add tension to their tongue?

    • Work on the /a/ sound as in “father” instead of the tension in the tongue.

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