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8 Exercises to Teach a Child to Say the “R” Sound

Teaching a child to articulate the “R” sound can be both rewarding and crucial for their speech development. The “R” sound, often one of the more challenging sounds to master, plays a significant role in clear communication. Whether the child struggles with pronouncing the “R” sound as a part of their speech development or is working to correct an articulation difficulty, a thoughtful and patient approach can help them achieve accurate and confident speech. By employing effective techniques and creating an encouraging learning environment, parents, caregivers, and educators can guide the child toward achieving successful “R” sound production. In this resource, we highlight 8 exercises to teach a child to say the “R” Sound.

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It is common to feel like grad school was a firehose of information but even after completing your practica, you still don’t really know what you are doing when it comes to articulation therapy.

Maybe you have spent time in another setting where you didn’t focus heavily on speech therapy for articulation, but now you find it is a major part of your caseload. And you are frustrated. Where do you even start? How do you get your students or clients to produce these tricky sounds that come so naturally to everyone else. How do you get their attention and motivate them? How do you explain to them where to place their lips and tongue and jaw when they are so young and learning so many other things?

Never fear! Below are our best tips and exercises to teach a child to say the R sound:

1. Understand the Two Ways to Teach R

Understand the two ways to teach R – bunched and retroflex. Most adults use a bunched R which means their tongue squeezes into a bunch and raises up in the middle. The tip may raise slightly, the sides of the tongue likely touch the insides of the top molars, and the back of the throat constricts. Everyone produces it slightly differently and it can be very vague and complicated to explain to a child. The retroflex R is also produced by many adults. In this version, the tongue tip sweeps up and back, forming a small bowl in the middle. It may bring to mind a large wave at the ocean. This version is a little easier to see and explain. It can also be quicker to learn which promotes engagement and reduces frustration for the child. Even if a child needs to start by using the retroflex R, he or she will likely be able to switch to a bunched R later on if that works better. But just being able to manipulate the tongue muscles and produce a clear R sound is very motivating and reinforces the correct stimulus feedback loop. Working on the retroflex R using the Karla technique has worked wonders in our experience. We love to use Karla flashcards to drill the tongue movement in a fun way.

2. Use Facilitative Contexts

Use facilitative contexts. Other sounds such as /g/, /i/ (“ee” sound), /a/ can make it easier for students to produce an R sound. Words that begin with GR can be easy to produce because the /g/ sound is produced at the back of the throat which is where tightness and focus is needed for a “bunched” /r/. The “ee” sound also helps bunch and tighten the middle of the tongue, facilitating an /r/ sound, and works great in words such as “eerie” and “earring”. And the /a/ sound (such as in the middle of the word “pot”) can be helpful for a retroflex /r/ sound as it pulls the jaw down in preparation for the tongue to make a nice full backwards bend. Try words like “car”, “Karla”, and “garlic.”

3. Use a Mirror

Use a mirror. This goes without saying but children need to get additional feedback rather than just feeling the movement of their tongue. Visual information can help strengthen correct motor patterns and reduce incorrect movements. Make sure to ask the student to describe what they are seeing, and to eventually tell whether they performed the targeted movement or not, with your guidance of course.

4. Use Lollipops

Use lollipops. If the child’s parents give permission, you can make sessions more fun by using a lollipop to ‘paint’ the targeted sections of the child’s tongue. For example, if you are working on elevating the tongue tip, ‘paint’ the tip using the lollipop. If you are working on the stability of the sides of the tongue pushing against the inside of the molars, paint that area. This provides more sensory input to reinforce neural pathways for how and where to move the tongue to produce the targeted sound.

5. Use Play-doh

Use play-doh to create a pretend tongue and familiarize children with the different parts of their tongue and how it can move. If you ask anyone how they produce an R sound, they will have no idea how to explain it. They are not conscious of the different sections of their tongue and what is moving where. This is even more true for children. They are still learning about their bodies and the different terms for each part. So if you tell them “No, move the back of your tongue more” they may become frustrated as it is not only difficult to control, but difficult to understand what you are talking about. Using visual and kinesthetic aids can help. It is also a fun and engaging activity to get to play with play-doh. You can create pretend tongues together and work on identifying the different parts. Practice making the tongue “bunch up” and flip the tip backwards. You could also make pretend teeth to show how the tongue moves in relation the the rest of the mouth.

6. Use a Fun Snapchat Filter

Use a fun snapchat filter to record a close-up of your tongue as it moves. This works really well with the retroflex R sound as it is a more visible movement. Get good lighting and open wide as you slowly produce the word “Karla” on your snapchat video. If it looks fun and silly and includes a high-pitched voice, children will watch it over and over and will begin to develop a motor plan for the tongue movement.

7. Read Pam Marshalla’s Work

Read up on Pam Marshalla’s work. Pam Marshalla passed away a few years ago but was a wealth of knowledge on innovative ways of thinking about targeting articulation errors. She has entire books on the /r/ sound and goes in depth into the accompanying musculature and developmental phases related to speech articulation.

8. Get This Book

Get the book: Eliciting Sounds: Techniques and Strategies for Clinicians. This book is an invaluable resource that goes into evidence-based descriptions of a huge variety of articulation therapy techniques. You may have needed to buy this book for grad school but not all schools recommend it. Or maybe you lost yours. Buy it again! This book is to-the-point and easily accessible as a resource for articulation therapy. It provides clinically relevant recommendations for targeting any phoneme, and has a lot of great information about the R sound.

Final Thoughts on How to Teach a Child to Say the “R” Sound

Thank you for reading this resource on 8 Ways How to Teach a Child to Say the “R” Sound. Remember, all children have different strengths and weaknesses, oral structures, intelligence levels, and rates of development. The R sound is difficult to produce and difficult to see and describe. This is why there is not one easy, straightforward approach to teaching it. Use your amazing research and clinical skills to determine which approach works best for your style and skills and which techniques are most successful with the children you serve. You are doing a fantastic job and you will get the hang of it! And remember to encourage the children you are working with. Give them lots of credit just for trying and let them know that the R sound may not come within the first few sessions. Reward them for their hard work anyway and keep it fun!

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SLP Team
Author: SLP Team

Our Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) team is a dedicated group of professionals committed to sharing industry expertise to help you grow your practice and improve how you treat your patients.

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